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Utah lawmakers pass driver's license changes, $235M for prison construction in special session

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah driver's licenses will soon bear a gold star to allow residents to pass through airport security, bringing the state into compliance with a part of federal law it has resisted for nearly a decade.

Lawmakers passed a bill in a special session Monday repealing provisions in Utah prohibiting compliance with the Real ID Act.

"The only thing we were not compliant with is putting that little gold star on," said Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, who sponsored the measure.

The Legislature also approved a funding bill for building the new prison as the governor and legislative leaders announced a huge budget surplus heading into the 2019 general session.

The Department of Homeland Security requires state driver's licenses to include by October 2020 a gold star on the front acknowledging they have reviewed birth certificates or passports to ensure license holders are U.S. citizens.

The driver's license issue dates back to 2010, when Utah lawmakers decided to push back against what they viewed as an unfunded mandate from the federal government dealing with new Homeland Security policies.

Utah Driver License Division Director Christopher Caras told lawmakers in October that every month the state waits to change the law costs about $80,000.

Harper said Utah would save about $500,000 if it starts making the change now as licenses are renewed rather than after the 2019 general legislative session. Caras estimated the price tag at between $2 million to $3.4 million if lawmakers wait until next year.

If the law isn't changed to ensure state-issued driver's licenses are in compliance by the deadline, Utahns would no longer be able to use their licenses to board planes or in other instances where a federally recognized ID is required. They would have to rely on passports instead.

In House floor debate, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, argued the Real ID Act takes control from the states and make residents' private information more susceptible to data breaches and leaks.

The federal government, he said, is telling people "if you don't do what we say, we'll punish you."

Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said the bill doesn't require the gathering of any new personal information or data the government doesn't already have.

Lawmakers Monday also passed a bill appropriating $235 million in surplus funds for construction of the new prison instead of borrowing.

"At the present time, we don't need the bond," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, adding the state's revenue is "considerably higher" this year than in the past.

The bill directs $67 million for the project in 2019 and $168 million in 2020. The new prison is estimated to cost $700 million.

The Legislature passed the bill as GOP leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert announced $675 million new ongoing funding and $646 million in one-time funding available for the 2019 legislative session.