Baker plans budget amendment on licenses

Responds to concerns raised by House Republicans

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

AFTER CONCERNS WERE RAISED in the Legislature and the press, Gov. Charlie Baker plans to file a state budget amendment seeking to ensure that those in the country illegally are not able to gain access to Massachusetts driver’s licenses.

Rep. James Lyons, an Andover Republican, last week raised concerns that language in the $39.15 billion spending bill would enable the registrar of motor vehicles broad discretion in granting licenses.

A Baker spokesman on Thursday said the governor would file an amendment to “add clarification” to the portion of the budget dealing with REAL ID – a measure strongly encouraged by the federal government, establishing standards intended to increase the security of state-issued identification.

“As the Commonwealth works to comply with new standards set by the federal government for credential holders, it is imperative that we provide greater security and ensure that new licenses are only obtained by individuals with proper documentation, including proof of lawful presence,” Baker said in a statement. “This amendment eliminates any question that all applicants must show proof of lawful presence, an immigration status recognized by the Department of Homeland Security, to the Registrar to legally obtain a REAL-ID compliant license or a Massachusetts license.”

The budget language passed by the Legislature directs the registrar – Erin Deveney – to issue licenses compliant with the REAL ID Act and another Massachusetts license for anyone who “provides documentation and demonstrates qualifications acceptable to the registrar.”

That language offers too much discretion to the registrar, according to Rep. Shaunna O’Connell. “I think we should have discretion over exactly what is acceptable,” the Taunton Republican said during debate last week, asserting that registry officials are already dealing with people using stolen birth certificates to obtain licenses.

Senate Republicans wrote Baker on Wednesday, encouraging him to “reject any language that could possibly result in driver’s licenses or permits, or identification cards, to those not lawfully present in the United States.”

“You have consistently expressed your intent to bring our state into compliance with the [REAL ID] Act and to oppose legislation that would authorize the granting of driver’s licenses or permits to those who are not legally present in our country,” the GOP senators wrote.

Baker, who has until Monday to act on the budget bill, plans to propose language to the REAL ID section specifying, “No license of any type may be issued to any person who does not have lawful presence in the United States.”

The Boston Herald reported Baker’s amendment plans in Thursday’s paper.

More than 50 House and Senate Democrats have signed onto legislation (H 2985) that would bar the registrar from denying licenses to Bay State residents because of an inability to provide a Social Security number or “evidence of immigration status.” Supporters of that bill say licensing those not in the country legally, many of whom already drive illegally, would increase safety on state roadways.

The bill removing immigration-related barriers to licensure, which carries the endorsement of Senate Ways and Means Vice Chairman Sal DiDomenico and House Assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing, is in the Transportation Committee, according to the Legislature’s website.

After the budget passed, Herald columnist Howie Carr wrote that Baker has a chance to “prove” he opposes granting driver’s licenses to those in the country illegally by vetoing the “license handout” provision.

A spokesman for House Speaker Robert DeLeo told the Herald the speaker “supports this language, which will enable Massachusetts to comply with federal law.”

Rushing responded to Lyons’ claims during floor debate in the House last week. “There is no language in this budget that allows for anyone who is not qualified to get a license today to get a license after this budget passes,” Rushing said. “No such language.”

Senate President Stan Rosenberg told Greater Boston host James Braude Wednesday night that moments before their interview he discussed REAL ID issues with Baker over the phone.

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“We got to make sure it gets into law so that we don’t have a problem with the federal government,” Rosenberg said.

Michael P. Norton contributed reporting to this story.