No Time like the Present for Driver's License Reform

By Mark Krikorian on January 17, 2004

The Bennington (Vt.) Banner, January 17, 2004
Also ran in The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, February 4, 2004

Not content to leave homeland security up to federal agencies, Gov. Jim Douglas made headlines recently for addressing border issues together with neighbors Quebec and New Hampshire.

Attention to security is welcome and appropriate, particularly during this period of elevated threat, but it cannot be a one-man show. The legislature also needs to join in the act. It will have the opportunity to do so in January, when a new proposal from the Department of Motor Vehicles to improve our drivers' licensing laws will be unveiled.

Long considered a mundane function of state government, motor vehicle licensing laws have come under intense scrutiny since it was learned that the 9/11 hijackers used Virginia and Florida identification documents to blend into society. In California, Gov. Gray Davis' desperate move in the opposite direction, offering licenses to illegal aliens, contributed decisively to his being sacked - 70 percent of voters there expressed opposition to the idea.

Vermont has several weak spots in its law that are a chink in our homeland security armor. Vermont is only state in the union that still does not require a photograph on the license. Intended to spare residents of remote areas the long trip to a far-off DMV office, nowadays this exception provides enormous opportunity for identity theft and other fraud (besides drawing stares of disbelief in other states).

In addition, Vermont currently lacks provisions to prevent illegal aliens from obtaining licenses. For an illegal alien, the license is the key to the kingdom - the next-best thing to a green card, giving access to social services, jobs, bank accounts, guns, airplanes, and more.

Illegal immigration is no hypothetical threat in Vermont.

According to the most recent statistics, at least 2,500 illegal aliens are now living and working here. Our state is a gateway to the United States from Canada, where al Qaeda is known to support cells, and where terrorists like Ahmed Ressam, convicted of plotting the millennium bombing of Los Angeles airport, are routinely awarded permanent residency.

Aware of the potential for trouble, for two years DMV Commissioner Bonnie Rutledge has been trying to convince lawmakers to approve a package of basic reforms, including a mandatory photo, that would make Vermont's licenses secure and reliable as identification documents. Most voters consider this to be a no-brainer. In the last Doyle Poll, roughly three-quarters of the respondents approved of a mandatory photo on the driver's license. According to the DMV, 85 percent of all recent applicants have opted for the photo license.

Despite widespread acceptance of the idea, a few key lawmakers, notably Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), have kept the reform bills bottled up in the Transportation Committees since the 2002 session. Some have objected on the grounds that the photo requirement would inconvenience constituents. Others, such as Sen. Peter Welch (D-Windsor), have expressed ambivalence that Vermont licenses are currently available to illegal aliens and foreign terrorists.

To address the convenience issue, the DMV has established a small fleet of mobile offices to serve the more remote parts of the state.

No Vermonter now needs to travel more than 45 minutes to get a photo license. This year Rutledge reportedly will ask legislators for authority to require a photo only for new applicants.

DMV officials say they also will seek to have licenses issued to foreign visitors expire at the same time as their visa. This change will make it harder for visa overstayers, who represent at least one-third of all illegal aliens (the 9/11 ringleaders fell into this category) to use a Vermont license, while allowing foreign students, guest workers and other legitimate visitors to drive legally. Ideally, Vermont should also add an extra layer of scrutiny for those applicants seeking to replace a license from states (or Canada) lacking adequate controls.

High standards for the integrity of state-issued documents is not an inconvenience. They are a hallmark of good government. The longer our legislators delay, the greater the chance for dangerous mischief, and the more likely that a solution will be imposed from Washington. Currently there are three bills pending in Congress that would penalize states like Vermont for lax licensing policies, including one that would withhold highway funds.

It would be far more convenient for us to do the right thing now, before we lose the flexibility to craft policies that make sense for Vermont.

Jessica Vaughan is a senior policy analyst at the