‘Do your homework.’ Senators blast administration for downplaying REAL ID concerns in rural Alaska

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, questions Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka on her reasoning for downplaying concerns about REAL ID during the committee's meeting Feb. 6, 2020. (Screenshot by Gavel Alaska)

Today’s Senate Finance Committee included a call for equity between urban and rural Alaska to be built into the budget and ended with senators fuming over the administration’s brazen dismissal of concerns about rural Alaska.

The Senate Finance Committee got its turn at reviewing Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s $262.5 million supplemental budget request, leaving several of its members with deep concerns about the administration’s apparent lack of urgency toward issues facing rural Alaska.

“The committee will not look in the rears and ask for equity,” said Senate Finance Committee Co-Chair Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka. “It will be looking for equity today going forward.”

There were several concerns raised by the committee’s legislators who represent rural Alaska—Sens. Lyman Hoffman (D-Bethel), Donny Olson (D-Golovin), Click Bishop (R-Fairbanks) and Stedman—that ranged on everything from public safety to the state of the Alaska Marine Highway System, but it was the lack of any request to help rural Alaskans get REAL ID-compliant identification that raised the committee’s ire.

The REAL ID has been a long-running issue for Alaska and has gained renewed attention ahead of the Oct. 1 deadline that will require a REAL ID-compliant ID for air travel. It’s been a particularly tense issue for rural Alaska, where many communities don’t have a local DMV and where elders might not speak English as their first language.

Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka downplayed the urgency for Alaskans to get a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license, noting that several other forms of identification like passports, military IDs and photo IDs from federally recognized tribes will be acceptable to board a plane.

Tshibaka said efforts at the Division of Motor Vehicles have shifted to trying to educate people about the alternative forms of IDs, and downplayed the possibility of a mobile DMV service. She said the DMV “has been going over and above the standard DMV operations to help out with this education and outreach effort.”

Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka responds to legislators’ concerns about REAL ID requirements during the Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on Feb. 6, 2020. (Screenshot by Gavel Alaska)

Last fall, the DMV took an unprecedented step of asking for public donations for a rural DMV service. That donation program wasn’t mentioned on Thursday, but Tshibaka said the state did ultimately launch a pilot program for a mobile DMV that has already made a stop in New Stuyahok where it issued more than 80 REAL ID-compliant drivers licenses.

She downplayed the viability of the program, saying it was plagued by technical difficulties and that there’s been little interest from other communities as the state is seeking to make the communities pay for the stops.

“I’m not confident that our rural trips are going to continue to be successful if we cannot solve the problems with the camera that has to meet these really high requirements for the biometric identifiers that are required under the law that was passed for the REAL ID,” she said. “We do not have more communities waiting in the wings that have asked and are prepared.”

Sen. Hoffman, who’s been a fierce advocate for rural Alaska, said neither the excuse about technical difficulties nor Tshibaka’s perceived lack of interest from rural communities were acceptable. He noted that both are problems that could be addressed in the budget and said that there’s serious concerns that thousands of elders will be left unable to fly for medical care.

“Because the administration has not had the request as an excuse is unacceptable to this senator. If you were having problems with your camera, you should be requesting additional revenue sources to address that problem,” he said. “You should be requesting additional people to address the people that are unaware that their lives may be in danger. Lives may be in danger because you are waiting for them to request services that they are unaware that they need. That is emphatically uncalled for by your office and I would say that if lives are in danger, it is a result of your lack of coming forward and asking for resources from this committee. I will be holding you accountable.”

Tshibaka retorted that her evidence didn’t support what he was asking for.

“I don’t make budget requests that aren’t supported by data,” Tshibaka said, later adding that “543,000 Alaskans will have the potential of getting through TSA. 350,000 of them have passports, 65,000 have military IDs, 107,000 have REAL IDs.”

Though Tshibaka portrayed access to passports and tribal identification as far easier to obtain than a REAL ID-compliant state identification, she couldn’t speak to the prevalence of either in rural Alaska.

“I don’t know how many (Alaskans) have tribal IDs,” she said. “We are open and available to discuss this possibility of doing a pilot program, but I’m not going to bring forward a supplemental here when I don’t have more a handful of communities that have requested us to come and help them getting REAL ID.”

“Just a comment: Do your homework,” Hoffman fired back.

That’s because, as Hoffman would surely know (and as we found by making a call), tribal IDs are not particularly popular or prevalent in Alaska. That also is not to mention that not all residents of rural Alaska are members of federally recognized tribes.

Why it matters

Sen. Stedman’s vow on delivering equity in the budget was a significant moment in the Alaska Legislature, particularly as Gov. Dunleavy, his administration and Dunleavy-aligned Republicans have sought to focus cuts on services used by rural and coastal Alaska.

With seasoned legislators like Hoffman, Olson and Bishop at the able, the committee is well-equipped to press and challenge the administration on its budget. Stedman regularly noted that issues like the lack of funding for Village Public Safety Officers, the Marine Highway System and other elements of the budget will get special attention from the specialized finance subcommittees this year. Several of today’s efforts, though, were met by administration officials with either vague platitudes or promises to get back with more information.

The Dunleavy administration has faced questions about its budget being a form of institutional racism by deploying cuts that will be felt most by communities that are largely Alaska Native (For the record, Dunleavy says his budget can’t be racist because he is married to an Alaska Native woman).

Today’s presentation did little to allay those concerns.

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