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Government, Politics & Issues

Senate panel, House speaker accuse Nixon of secretly complying with federal REAL ID law

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Missouri Capitol's continued debate over the state's scanning of personal documents, including concealed-carry permits, has taken another turn as state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, has raised the prospect of doing away with the state’s new system for producing drivers licenses and returning to the old over-the-counter setup.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Nixon’s office has swiftly sought to dispute questions raised by Republicans, including Schaefer, about a 2010 letter from the federal Department of Homeland Security that lauded Nixon for complying with aspects of the federal REAL ID mandate.

An identical letter was also sent to governors in at least four other states. Even so, state House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, on Wednesday called the 3-year-old letter to Nixon "very disturbing."

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2009 barring the state from complying with the federal law, which seeks to prevent fraud in drivers licenses by requiring that applicants verify their identity by presenting certain personal documents, such as a birth certificate or passport.

The REAL ID Act was enacted by Congress in 2005 at the behest of Republicans who then controlled both federal chambers. Missouri Republicans have cited privacy concerns, although Democrats say such objections were raised only after Nixon became governor.

Schaefer chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, which held a five-hour hearing Wednesday on the intertwined controversies.

Among other things, the panel sought to single out from the pertinent departments’ budgets all money – federal or state -- tied to the new system of producing drivers licenses.

Some of the money is being excised by Schaefer from those departments’ proposed budgets, but some was restored Wednesday. He initially had cut out millions of budgeted dollars, but Nixon and his administration have said most have nothing to do with drivers licenses or document scanning.

Last week, Nixon said that the state Senate was jeopardizing the public’s safety by cutting out $21 million in federal homeland security grants distributed to hundreds of local law enforcement agencies.

Schaefer replied that the departments fail to make it clear to legislators why they have received federal grants and what the money is to be used for. He reaffirmed Wednesday that the Senate had no interest in cutting money that had nothing to do with the debate over drivers licenses and keeping personal documents in a state database.

Panel questions producing Missouri licenses in Georgia

During Wednesday’s hearing, Schaefer also blamed actions by the Department of Revenue and the Office of Administration to do away with the old license system that allowed the state’s network of roughly 180 “fee offices” to issue drivers licenses directly over the counter and without scanning personal documents into a statewide database.

Now, all licenses are processed and sent out by a firm in Georgia, which submitted the lowest bid.

Schaefer said that legislators hadn’t been aware until after the fact that the production of Missouri licenses had been outsourced. Nixon’s administration said that the centralized production of licenses first had been raised several years ago as a way to save state money and to protect against fraudulent licenses being obtained at local fee offices.

But Schaefer and other panel members indicated concern that the Georgia company and federal agencies could access the scanned documents. Some also alleged that the new system may be part of an effort by the Nixon administration to comply with REAL ID, despite the GOP-controlled General Assembly’s objections.

Cited was the March 17, 2010 letter from Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano to Nixon praising him for the state’s pro-REAL ID efforts. Conservative blogs also were circulating the letter on the internet Wednesday as alleged proof that Nixon had misled Republicans upset about the scanning of concealed carry permits and was going against their wishes on REAL ID

Acting Department of Revenue director John R. Mollenkamp told Schaefer’s committee that the letter was actually a “form letter” sent to many states. The department later sent to reporters copies of the identical letter, with the same date, sent to governors in Idaho, Maine, Oregon and Virginia.

Still, House Speaker Jones contended the letter was "yet another inconsistency" in the dispute involving the scanned concealed-carry permits.

Schaefer's panel focused beyond the permits, by also raising questions about the new process to verify the identity of people in drivers license photos before the licenses are sent out.

Using special computer programs, the photos are compared with previous photos in an individual's earlier licenses. A copy also may be sent to license bureaus in other states to detect people fraudulently using the same photo to get licenses under different names in other states.

Office of Administration commissioner Douglas E. Nelson denied any effort to skirt the General Assembly’s intent on REAL ID, but noted Nixon’s recent statements emphasizing that his concerns that the state’s drivers licenses are not open to fraud.

Nelson said the “balancing act between security and privacy’’ was a topic for the General Assembly and state officials to discuss.

Meanwhile, the Department of Revenue said that it would cost the state at least $1.4 million more each year to return to over-the-counter drivers licenses because new equipment would be required at each of the fee offices.

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