Boarding a plane is going to get a lot more complicated for Pennsylvania residents come January 22, 2018 (as you've probably heard), and PennDOT officials say you should look to none other than state legislators to fix the problem before the deadline.
Pennsylvania has a law on the books that PennDOT says is preventing it from making the necessary enhancements to driver's licenses and state ID cards to bring them into compliance with federal standards. PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick said the federal requirements are generally technical and have to do with the state's license-issuing processes. Although Pennsylvania IDs do boast a number of security features, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning letter to PennDOT last week: Comply with the federal "REAL ID" law standards, or else.
Regulations for Pennsylvania ID holders begin to go into effect Jan. 30, 2017, when the feds warned that Pennsylvania licenses would no longer be accepted as identification to get into federal facilities like military bases and nuclear plants (they will, however, still be accepted to obtain federal benefits and get into buildings to do so). The more sweeping and worrisome regulation goes into effect a year after that, on Jan. 22, 2018, when Pennsylvania IDs -- as things stand now -- won't be accepted by the Transportation Security Administration to board flights.
So why doesn't PennDOT just fix everyone's ID before that?
The short answer, Kirkpatrick said, is that their hands are tied. Pennsylvania enacted the REAL ID Nonparticipation Act in 2012 saying the state would not comply with the federal government's "REAL ID" requirements. So, Kirkpatrick explained to NBC10 on Tuesday, PennDOT is barred from making the necessary changes to comply.
The state's noncompliance act is brief -- it's only 20 lines on the Pennsylvania General Assembly's website -- but it challenges the "constitutionality and legality" of the federal government's REAL ID Act of 2005.
Kirkpatrick said that law is what's stopping PennDOT from fixing Pennsylvanians' IDs.
"The federal government is telling us, 'PennDOT, you need to take additional steps,'" he said. "And we, of course, can do nothing, because there is a law on the books that says we're not allowed to do anything. So it's kind of a standoff between the federal government and state government at this point, and it's up to the legislature to decide whether they want to rescind [the Pennsylvania law] or take the consequences."
Kirkpatrick said the ball is in Pennsylvania's court to fix this before it causes a headache for its residents. He said the costliness of the added security features required in the federal REAL ID law has been among the state's concerns, and although he didn't have an exact figure for how much it could potentially cost, he called it "substantial."
Pennsylvania can, though, buy more time from the federal government (the state has already been operating on an extended deadline for compliance with REAL ID laws) -- if the state is willing to demonstrate that it's committed to correcting the ID problem. Other states not yet in compliance, including New Jersey, have obtained longer extensions.
"Pennsylvania may request an extension if there are new developments or additional information regarding your jurisdiction's progress towards meeting outstanding requirements, the reasons that these standards remain unmet, and the reasons for continued noncompliance," the Department of Homeland Security wrote in an Oct. 11 letter to Kurt J. Myers, PennDOT's deputy secretary for Driver and Vehicle Services. NBC10 obtained a copy of the letter.
Kirkpatrick said if the state quells the feds' request to be granted an extension, Pennsylvanians could be spared from the hurdle of having to get a passport or some other TSA-approved ID to fly come 2018.
"What constitutes that is really up to the federal government," he said. "But at this point, because of the state law that's on the books, PennDOT can take no additional steps. So that's kind of the dilemma we're facing."
A spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday said that the federal REAL ID requirements "amount to an unfunded and unnecessary federal mandate," but echoed Kirkpatrick on the state law preventing compliance.
He said Pennsylvania citizens would be "unfairly burdened" if the state doesn't comply with federal standards. "We are hopeful to work with the legislature regarding this matter."