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License plan revised Three-tier system meets concerns over security and legal driving

The agreement reached by Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on state plans for driver's licenses probably was as good a bureaucratic and political compromise as could be expected in these paranoid and partisan times.

Spitzer, a Democrat, and Chertoff, a Republican, Saturday announced plans to deal with the competing demands of national security and highway sanity by dealing a new deck of identification documents as soon as next year.

Chertoff wisely washed his hands of the New York fuss over whether illegal immigrants should be issued licenses that attest only to their ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. It's not a federal matter, he correctly said.

Spitzer said -- also correctly -- that proof of ability to drive a car and proof of legal residency are two different things that do not necessarily belong on the same small document.

If the feds had done a proper job of creating a real federal border ID, rather than shoving the job off to the states, we wouldn't even be having this fight. But we are.

So, instead of his much-criticized plan simply to startissuing driver's licenses to illegal aliens, Spitzer cut a deal with Chertoff to start issuing three classes of New York driver's licenses.

The top of the line will be a citizens-only license that meets the demands of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. It will allow the bearer not only to drive a car, but also to board an airliner, enter a federal building, even cross to and from Canada without also carrying a passport.

The next rung down -- in exclusivity and, presumably, in price -- will be a Real ID-compliant license, available to citizens and legal residents. It will meet pending rules for a higher level of scrutiny to board domestic flights and enter federal property.

At the bottom of the heap will be the plain vanilla driver's license. For that card, Spitzer plans to stick to -- though delay by up to a year -- his plan to allow a valid foreign passport to substitute for a Social Security number. So it will be available to people who aren't legally here.

Of course it could also be issued to bona fide American citizens who already have a passport, who don't plan to fly anywhere or cross any borders, or who just don't want to pay the higher fees that will be required for the other levels. Thus mere possession of the lowest-level license would not be a rational legal grounds for presuming that the owner was illegal.

Spitzer also has reversed course on the use of "Temporary Visitor" stamps on legal short-term visitors, restoring its use to meet Homeland Security concerns a month after dropping the practice.

Revising the license system is going to take time, cost money and require some serious attention to innumerable nuts and bolts. A three-tier system, even more than the two-tier licenses this page had suggested as a workable compromise, will be complex and must be properly planned.

Given the national security impetus, federal funding should be part of this effort -- and both state and federal funding should flow down to the county-based agencies that will do most of the processing.

That will happen only if politicians of all stripes just calm down and work through the problem, rather than indulge the current rage of partisan election-season bear-baiting.

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