February 3, 2017

Committee hears about problems with two-tier license system

Laura Paskus

New Mexico’s two-tiered driver’s license law that Gov. Susana Martinez celebrated as a political victory has been a horror show for ordinary people, Democratic state senators said Thursday.

“We are making it really hard,” said Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Santa Fe. “Immigrants, homeless people, elders … we’re really making it difficult for people in the state.”

The law gives state residents without proof of immigration status an opportunity to obtain a driving privilege card. U.S. citizens also can obtain the privilege card if they don’t want a license that complies with the federal Real ID law. But those who want to enter a secure government building need the full-fledged license that complies with federal law.

People who spoke at the two-hour hearing before the Senate Public Affairs Committee told of how difficult obtaining a license has been under the new law. Many spoke of having to make several trips to the Motor Vehicle Division because state staffers rejected various forms of required identification.

Stefanics, a member of the committee, said she spoke to someone who had to make three trips to get a license. Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said he’s talked to someone who had to go to an MVD office nine times.

Stefanics said she’s also heard of elderly people just giving up on trying to get a license or identification card because it’s so difficult.

John Monforte, acting director of the state Department of Taxation and Revenue, said changing to the two-tiered driver’s license system last year has been “a heavy lift” for the state — a contention that many at the hearing would call an understatement.

To get a Real ID license, a resident must provide proof of identity and age, meaning documents such as a passport or a birth certificate are required. For proof of residence, an applicant needs a utility bill, property tax bill, mortgage statement, bank statement or pay stub.

There also are new requirements for getting the second type of license, known as the driving privilege card. Having a current valid license is enough for someone to obtain a two-year privilege card. But to get a four-year card, an applicant has to show two documents proving residency.

“We are hearing from people who have legacy licenses who are being told they must submit fingerprints to get a driver’s privilege card,” said Gabriela Guzman, staff attorney for immigrant advocacy group Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

Fingerprinting is not required by the law to get the card, except for first-time applicants.

Some senators questioned whether the MVD was doing enough to let already-licensed drivers know that they can get the two-year driving privilege card.

There’s frustration on the part of MVD employees as well.

Will Duran, director of the agency, said promising employees are quitting because they’re tired of dealing with angry people who have been thwarted in their attempts to get a driver’s license. He said unsatisfied customers have thrown objects at clerks, and there have been cases of vandalism at one MVD office in Albuquerque, possibly because of snags with driver’s licenses.

“The pressure must be enormous,” committee Chairman Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, told Monforte. “People are pissed. … I keep hearing from people who no longer drive but need some kind of identification to cash their checks. That didn’t used to be a problem. Couldn’t we do something about that? Couldn’t we find some simple fast state ID card?”

There also were tense exchanges between Monforte and committee members. Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said she believed the department was overreaching in its interpretation of the law.

“We just want you to follow law,” she said. “That is the crux of the issue.”

Monforte replied, “I’m not sure all legislators realize what they voted on.”

Despite the problems people have experienced with the new system, tens of thousands of New Mexicans have obtained licenses.

Duran said that since the state began offering Real ID-compliant licenses late last year, about 87,000 have been issued. Another 4,500 people have received driving privilege cards.

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at www.santafenew mexican.com/news/blogs/politics.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly reported the number of people who have been issued driving privilege cards. The correct number is 4,500. The story also said that Real ID-compliant cards are needed to board domestic flights. That requirement won’t take effect until October 2020.