AUGUSTA (AP) – The state Senate on Thursday night gave final approval to a bill to tighten standards for getting a Maine driver’s license and sent it to Gov. John Baldacci, who supports it.

The Senate vote on the bill, which is dreaded as an affront to civil liberties and defended only as a stopgap, was 19-15.

The bill, which was submitted by Gov. John Baldacci under federal pressure, will require that the state issue drivers’ licenses and state IDs only to applicants who are in the United States legally. Maine and a few other states currently have no rules limiting licenses to legal residents.

After winning barely enough votes in the House on Wednesday to pass, the bill gained ground when lawmakers stripped away a provision that called for 50 percent increases in driver’s license fees to pay for the licensing changes.

“They made a bad bill better, but not good enough,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which lobbied hard against passage. The MCLU and other critics believe it would single out immigrants while eroding everyone’s privacy rights.

“Slowly but surely, our freedoms are being picked off one by one,” warned Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono.

Baldacci submitted the bill after the federal Department of Homeland Security rejected Maine’s request for an extension of the March 31 deadline to show action toward compliance with the Real ID Act of 2005.

While Baldacci and others try to disassociate the bill from Real ID, critics see a connection and say the DHS is effectively deputizing Maine and other states to act as immigration enforcement agents. Last year, Maine passed a law barring compliance with Real ID.

“We said no then and we should say no now,” Sen. Dennis Damon, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, said during Thursday’s debate. The Trenton Democrat also warned of long-term costs of compliance, which he said could add up to $71 million in Maine alone.

Other senators were alarmed by the hasty deliberations they say were forced by federal edict. The bill was introduced shortly after Baldacci agreed to its general terms April 2. This year’s legislative session is due to end this week.

“We are being told we have to rush this through right now. We do not,” said Sen. Philip Bartlett II, D-Gorham, who called for a more complete analysis over the next few months so the next Legislature can act in early December.

Bartlett and others expressed doubt the bill’s provisions will accomplish their objective – to make the country safer.

But Sen. Bill Diamond urged senators to act, saying that failure to do so could mean that Mainers’ licenses and state IDs will no longer be acceptable credentials and residents using them will be subjected to extra security screening at airports and federal buildings after Dec. 15.

“This bill, ladies and gentlemen, buys us time,” said Diamond, D-Windham, and also a member of the Transportation panel that hastily reworked Baldacci’s bill.

The measure requires Maine licenses to expire when a holder’s legal duration of stay in the U.S. ends, that photos of applicants be taken at the start of the licensing process, that the state find ways to avoid duplication of licenses and that motor vehicles officials check with the federal Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE, program to determine whether an applicant is residing in the U.S. legally.

A proposal to increase the fee for a six-year noncommercial driver’s license from $30 to $45, and other fees as well, was cut out of the bill.

Sen. Christine Savage of Union, the senior Republican on Transportation who also supported the bill, said it does no more than ensure the integrity of Maine licenses. She also noted that other state agencies already utilize the SAVE program.

AP-ES-04-17-08 1953EDT

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