As part of a nationwide effort to combat terrorism, the Wisconsin Senate approved a bill Thursday requiring individuals to prove legal residency before obtaining drivers' licenses.
The federal Real ID Act, created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, requires states to meet national identification standards by May 2008.
Wisconsin's component of the national standard, Assembly Bill 69, would require applicants to present proof of legal residence in order to be eligible for a driver's license.
"Assembly Bill 69 will bring Wisconsin law into compliance with the Real ID Act," said Sen. Joe Leibham, R-Sheboygan, who authored the bill's Senate companion. "It's … an issue of national security."
Under the federal law, an identification card or driver's license approved by Real ID Act standards is required to enter a federal building or board an airplane.
Bill supporters cite the Sept. 11 attacks, in which the hijackers had obtained valid drivers' licenses, as an example of why identification reform is necessary.
While AB 69 supporters view the measure as a key issue of homeland security, some Democrats charge the bill itself could actually prove a greater threat to public safety.
According to Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, the bill will encourage driving without licensing and in turn fill roadways with drivers who have not fulfilled the proper written and practical testing.
"To be able to drive, we should see to it that people are qualified to drive," Risser said. "We don't want unlicensed drivers on the roads."
Risser said an amendment creating additional classification of licenses only for drivers could have improved the bill by allowing individuals to drive but still prevent them from entering federal buildings or boarding planes.
The amendment — proposed by Sen. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse — was not approved, however, after senators ruled it not germane.
"[AB 69] has nothing to do with national security whatsoever," Risser said. "I quite frankly believe the bottom line is highway safety."
While some opponents cite highway safety as a major concern, others also point to the bill's threat to personal privacy and the Real ID Act's tremendous cost to the state.
According to Patrick Fernan, director of driver services of the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles, the department estimates the start-up costs will amount to more than $10 million, with additional yearly maintenance costs.
Fernan added the law's requirement of document verification will present a logistical headache, as applicants are forced to wait months for their birth certificates to be validated.
"Our position is that we are going to need a real-time online verification system — otherwise we simply won't be able to verify [everything]," he said, adding the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administration "is working with Homeland Security to make sure rules are as cost-effective and easy to implement as possible."
After being approved by the Assembly last year, AB 69 was concurred by the Senate Thursday in a 26 to 7 vote. The bill will now be forwarded to Gov. Jim Doyle for review.
"The governor will look at it when it gets to his desk," Doyle spokeswoman Anne Lupardus said, "but Congress has imposed a federal mandate that doesn't give the state very much room on this issue."