Panel: No Federal Guidance on License Residency Standards

By Beacon Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine – A legislative committee is embracing a 30-day residency requirement for driver’s license applicants, but exactly how residence would be proven remained elusive as lawmakers complained Monday that the federal government has been silent on the issue.

The full Legislature is taking up the residency rule, a hot election-year topic, after an 11-2 vote by the Transportation Committee on Friday. The proposal now goes to the full Legislature.

The committee vote builds on the existing requirement that a person must be a resident for 30 days in order to qualify for a driver’s license. But exactly what credentials an applicant will have to show in order to show residency remains subject to further clarification by the state motor vehicles officials.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface in identifying what the criteria should be on the legal presence issue,” said Rep. Charles Fisher, a member of the Transportation Committee. Like some other committee members, Fisher, D-Brewer, believes “there has been a lack of federal guidance.”

Maine, one of few states without a proof-of-residency requirement, has drawn widespread scrutiny of its licensing policy. Critics say it opens the door to abuse by illegal immigrants and other nonresidents who seek an easy way to gain identification.

But civil libertarians caution that residency rules can run afoul of the Constitution’s equal protection clause, and say license requirements should be limited to an applicant’s knowledge of driving and driving laws.

The matter gained prominence last year after a bill calling for a residency requirement was introduced by Rep. William Browne. The bill led to the formation of a working group headed by Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, which recommended stronger residency requirements, and the committee’s vote Friday.

“This was a move in the right direction as far as what the citizens of Maine want in terms of accountability,” Browne, R-Vassalboro, said in a statement.

The Maine licensing issue comes to the forefront as state officials continue to review the state’s stand on the federal Real ID law, which requires states to adopt stricter driver license standards.

The Department of Homeland Security says Maine, along with Montana, New Hampshire and South Carolina, has not yet met a March 31 deadline to request an extension to comply with the Real ID law, which is intended as counterterrorism effort.

The government says residents of states that fail to seek an extension by March 31 will be subjected to secondary screening by security workers before boarding any domestic flight beginning May 11. Gov. John Baldacci wants to avoid the possibility of Mainers facing added hardships because of the law, a spokesman said.

Baldacci and Dunlap, whose agency oversees motor vehicle and licensing regulation, have been holding meetings to decide the state’s next move as March 31 approaches, Baldacci spokesman David Farmer said.

State officials had asked for clarification from the Homeland Security Department on which state official had authority to request a waiver by that deadline. The department on Monday responded that “the governor is an appropriate official to send the initial request.”

The letter to Baldacci from Kathleen Kraninger, a deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security, said the department is working with states like Maine that have laws limiting their ability to implement the Real ID Act.

“We are encouraging such States to send request letters outlining the steps they have taken already to enhance the security of their State-issued driver’s licenses and any planned investments to further improve their licenses, separate and apart from real ID,” the letter said.

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