By MICHAEL FROST
ANNAPOLIS (April 3, 2009) - The House of Delegates and the Senate are headed for a showdown over how to bring Maryland driver's licenses into compliance with Real ID, a federal law that requires applicants to document their legal status in the country.
The chambers' differences boil down to one key issue: what to do with immigrants who received Maryland licenses under the old rules but do not meet the stricter requirements.
The House passed a bill last week that would allow those drivers to renew their licenses without the documentation. However, these new licenses could not be used for federal purposes or airline travel.
New applicants would have to meet the stricter standards, for which they would receive a federally-approved license.
The Senate, on the other hand, passed its own bill Monday that would require documented lawful presence in order to get a license.
The final legislation is expected to be hashed out in a conference committee next week. Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he will sign either bill, although he has indicated that he favors the House version, calling it "a more practical and reasonable solution," said Shaun Adamec, a spokesman.
The Real ID Act was signed into law by then-President Bush in 2005 as part of an emergency supplemental appropriations bill that funded operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as relief for victims of the tsunami in Asia.
It went into effect in May 2008, but states were granted extensions until December 31, 2009. States meeting certain benchmarks can apply for an additional extension to May 11, 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Maryland is one of only four states that have yet to meet the standards, along with Hawaii, New Mexico and Washington. Currently, the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration requires that applicants provide documents to prove Maryland residence and proof of identity, which can be done via a passport or birth certificate.
The House passed its version of the bill last week by a 77-60 vote, approving amendments offered in the Judiciary Committee by Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, that would "grandfather" in those who currently hold a license but do not have the documents to meet the new standards.
Dumais said the House bill consolidated five separate bills and tightened their language to directly address the Real ID statute. The amended bill clearly defines "lawful status" and what must be used to prove it, she said, while the Senate version used "lawful presence," which is not a legally defined term.
"For what it's worth, we did a lot of work," she said.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's, found the bill an appropriate compromise that would allow those who had licenses to maintain the privilege they had already acquired. He cited the example of an adult who had arrived as an undocumented 2-year-old and was already established in job and family, both of which would be severely disrupted if he lost his driver's license.
On the House floor, several Republican delegates voted "no" after approving the bill in committee, including Delegate J. B. Jennings, R-Baltimore County. Jennings said he felt he had been misled to believe that the Motor Vehicle Administration supported the "two-tier legislation," when in fact it had not taken a position on it.
Sen. E. J. Pipkin, R-Caroline, voted for the Senate bill, which passed 36-11.
"Right now, we have vanloads of people coming from New Jersey and other states to come into Maryland every day. They go in through our MVA, they get a driver's license, and then they go back to New Jersey and swap it for a New Jersey license," he said.
Immigrant advocacy groups saw the competing bills in rather different terms.
"The House version is only barely more acceptable than the Senate's," said Kim Propeack, director of community organizing and political action for CASA of Maryland.
Propeack said at least 150,000 people in Maryland will lose their licenses if the Senate version of the bill becomes law. Undocumented children who have yet to reach legal driving age are "going to be sunk under either proposal," she said.
She said others possibly affected by the legislation include victims of natural catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina.
Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, and chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, voted in favor of the Senate version but said the future of both bills was uncertain.
"I'm not sure what will happen, but whatever happens will happen next week," he said.
Delegate Henry Heller, D-Montgomery, agreed.
"That's going to be a hell of a conference committee," he said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.