SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns arriving at the airport could soon find that their state-issued driver's licenses won’t allow them past security.
Like a new chapter in Dr. Seuss' classic tale of "The Sneetches" — a story of creatures who either had stars on their bellies or didn't — a missing star on Utah driver's licenses could mean the difference between getting on a plane or being turned away.
As Seuss' story says: "You might think such a thing wouldn't matter at all."
But to the Department of Homeland Security, stars are a big deal. Utah drivers' licenses are supposed to have them — specifically a little gold star on the top right corner of each one.
"It's a card design flaw that's causing this problem," Chris Caras, director of the Utah Driver License Division, told a legislative panel Tuesday.
The solution could cost the state more than $3 million and would take an act of the Legislature to fix.
Utah has long complied with federal standards for vetting identities of those applying for a license — the same rules that require drivers to bring in an armful of documents in order to walk out with a new ID.
But U.S. Homeland Security officers have indicated Utah has not properly denoted its good standing on the cards, Caras said. The missing marker threatens their status as approved identification to board commercial flights, which the federal government regulates.
Utah licenses now contain the information, but it is included in a bar code on the back of the card, according to Caras.
The star's absence could cost Utah travelers the convenience of flashing only their state-issued licenses before boarding an airplane, and could require them to bring along a passport or some other form of acceptable ID. Transportation Safety Administration employees won't recognize licenses from noncompliant states, Caras said.
"We’re very concerned about that, because we feel the citizens have met their obligation for that," he said. “Really, it is a card design issue, but it’s a critical card design issue."
The Homeland Security department hasn't officially taken Utah off of its list, but if it does, Caras said he will pitch a corrective plan. If approved, Utah will have two more years to work through the changes. But if the proposal is rejected and Utah is found noncompliant, the IDs immediately stop being accepted at airports, he said.
The Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee was sympathetic Tuesday. It voted unanimously to draft a letter to federal officers asking for more time to roll out a new design with the star. Caras and Nannette Rolfe, deputy commissioner for the Utah Division of Public Safety, told the panel that they also are seeking help from Utah's congressional delegation.
When Utah last redrew its driver's license design, Rolfe said, federal officers were still discussing whether to require a gold star, a silver star or a flag, and hadn’t made a final decision.
By 2012, the gold star was required. Yet Utah passed its Homeland Security review, even though it had no stars on its license, and officers believed they had until October 2020 to add the symbol. But the state learned in May it was up for a different evaluation, Caras said, and Homeland Security officers told him about the potential bad news on Aug. 6.
Even if he promises to print new IDs to meet the requirement, Utah law now prohibits Caras' agency from doing so. The Utah Legislature in 2010 precluded the division from putting more changes into effect than the minimum federal criteria amid concerns about federal overreach. Congress created the security standards following the Sept. 11 attacks.
I see a lot of issues with putting — how many hundreds of thousands of drivers' licenses — in the mail.
–Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns
One lawmaker, Sen. Wayne Harper, has signed on to bring a measure that will repeal a piece of the law to allow the change.
"We want our people to be able to move and to travel as they choose," the Taylorsville Republican said Tuesday.
The change also could be expensive, and could cost roughly $3 million to $3.5 million if the state begins to reprint the cards early next year, but even more if it waits, Caras said. His agency has the revenue to shoulder some of the cost using fees it collects, he added.
The state is hoping it can hand out many of the new cards at the time drivers renew their licenses, and deliver the rest in the mail. But Utahns are responsible to make sure their addresses are up to date — something the agency will hope to make clear in an upcoming public relations push.
The possible mechanics of the rollout raised concerns from members of the subcommittee.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said he is wary of ID cards sitting in mailboxes and potentially waiting to be stolen.
"I see a lot of issues with putting — how many hundreds of thousands of drivers' licenses — in the mail," he said.
A Homeland Security Department official confirmed the federal agency is reviewing Utah's request to be recertified, but did not answer a list of questions Tuesday.
While a technicality has caused Utah's conundrum, several states have received more time to put in place the standards the Beehive State already observes. Eighteen states, plus the District of Columbia, currently have received extensions to come into compliance, according to the Homeland Security website.
The committee reconvenes Oct. 16.