Utah lawmakers explore quick fix to state driver-license problem that could run afoul of federal airport security

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Security line at the Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017.

Utah leaders are considering calling a special session of the Legislature to quickly fix a problem that soon could prevent Utahns from using their driver licenses to pass through airport security.

The Department of Homeland Security is requiring Utah to reissue all of its driver licenses by Oct. 1, 2020 — to include a gold star on the front as a sign that Utah reviewed birth certificates or passports to prove license holders are U.S. citizens.

Without the gold star — which allows officers to see compliance at a glance — DHS is warning it would no longer accept Utah driver licenses at airport security or to enter federal facilities after the 2020 deadline.

It’s a problem that could cost up to $5 million if the state moves slowly, but perhaps only $3.4 million if it moves quickly. That’s because more soon-to-expire licenses could be replaced with a gold star at the same time drivers renew licenses, rather than sending another duplicate later with the proper symbol.

The problem is, the Legislature in 2010 banned any further steps to comply with the federal REAL ID Act. Because of that law — a protest over unfunded federal mandates — state officials say they cannot now legally add the required gold star on licenses without amending the statute.

“This is a big enough issue that it would probably warrant a special session,” said Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, at a meeting Tuesday of the Legislature’s Executive Appropriations Committee.

“Time is of the essence because the longer we wait, it’s going to cost more money,” he said. “Unfortunately we can’t call ourselves into session — yet.” The governor has exclusive power to call a special session, although a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot this year would change that.

Paul Edwards, spokesman for Gov. Gary Herbert, said, “We’re very aware of the issue. We recognize that a quicker fix saves money. So if the Legislature comes together in a consensus way, and there is a clear path forward, the governor would consider looking at that proposal” for a special session.

Christopher Caras, director of the Utah Driver License Division, explained to lawmakers on Tuesday how the state landed in the current situation.

When Utah was first deemed compliant with rules to prove citizenship of license holders, the federal government had not yet required a gold star on cards, he said.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Security line at the Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017.

The federal government renewed Utah’s compliance status in 2013, even though by that time the gold star was required — and Utah licenses did not have it. But when the state tried to renew that status again this year, it was told it would be rejected unless all driver licenses have that star by Oct. 1, 2020.

The problem was brought last month to the Legislature’s Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations subcommittee, which requested that Utah be allowed to replace licenses over the next five years as they expire to avoid millions in extra costs.

Caras told lawmakers on Tuesday that the Department of Homeland Security is apparently not interested in allowing that — and is insisting on a fix by October 2020.

He suggested moving forward “because we do not want our citizens to not have the benefit of services they have now,” such as using their licenses to pass through airport security, “because of a card-design issue.”

As legislators' anger over unfunded mandates has cooled somewhat, “Maybe we can discuss it with a little less of the emotion" that was present in 2010, said Caras.

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