New ID law gums up licensing process

One person applying for a Georgia veterinary license submitted a photo of a dog in a Superman costume, complete with a red cape. Another sent in a picture of a cow. A third uploaded a pornographic video.

All three were applying for licenses online as part of a new process that started this year and has created red tape, confusion and weeks-long delays for nurses, cosmetologists and many other professionals across the state. Secretary of State Brian Kemp said those delays, and the staffing crunch they create, are among the reasons why he is closing the Georgia Archives to the public, except by Saturday appointment.

At issue is a part of Georgia’s new immigration law that requires people to show certain forms of identification before they can get public benefits, including professional licenses. The law – aimed at blocking illegal immigrants from getting benefits they are not entitled to receive – has created some unintended consequences.

For example, people confused by the requirements are not submitting copies of acceptable identification, such as state-issued driver’s licenses and U.S. passports. And instead of identification, others are inadvertently uploading animal photos into the state’s online system. Or maybe they are doing it as a joke – or as a protest. State officials aren’t sure.

Since Jan. 1, they have sent out about 9,500 “deficiency letters” to people who did not submit proper identification, further bogging things down.

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Meanwhile, the average time it takes for the state to process new license applications has gone up by 10 days, from 60 to 70. It now takes 10 days to handle renewal applications, up from two. At the same time, Kemp’s office is grappling with staffing shortages due to budget cuts even as its workload is increasing. His office received 49,747 new applications for licenses this fiscal year. And since 2008, the state’s licensing division has lost nearly 40 staffers.

Kemp said he had to make a “brutal” decision when the governor’s office asked state agencies to cut 3 percent from their budgets this year. He didn’t want to worsen the licensing delays, particularly amid a struggling economy. He also didn’t want to touch other parts of his office that generate state revenue.

The Georgia Archives ended up taking the hit, losing seven employees through layoffs. Starting Nov. 1, people must make appointments to see the Archive’s prized historic documents.

“I believe the Archives should be open to the public but we were under directives to make a 3 percent cut,” he said, “and that was the least impactful thing that we could do to the state as a whole.”

Kemp said the I.D. requirements in the immigration law have made the state’s licensing process “more bureaucratic.”

Previously, people could apply online to renew their licenses and get automatic approval. Now, people must submit copies of their identification online or by mail or fax. Most fax in their I.D. And there must be people on the other end to inspect those documents and contact applicants when that identification is missing.

Kemp’s staff highlighted these changes when they gave a reporter and photographer from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a tour of their licensing operations in Macon this month.

In the basement of their office building, several women crowded around broad tables, opening applications sent by mail, sorting the documents, time-stamping them and removing staples. From there the documents went to a woman sitting in a cubicle nearby. She punched information from them into the state’s computer system. Then the stacks of applications went across the room to another woman, who used an electronic scanner to feed them into the system. Two floors up, analysts checked to make sure the applications included the identification required by the immigration law.

Kemp said he has been working with Gov. Nathan Deal’s office and state legislators to tweak the law so that people who have already presented copies of their identification for a license would not have to do so again when applying for a renewal. State lawmakers sought to make that change this year, but the effort stalled in the House.

“There was broad support last year for this change and I suspect the same will be true in the upcoming session,” said state Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, author of the state’s immigration law.

The Georgia Nurses Association has monitored the process closely. “Current law requires applicants to submit the documentation of citizenship upon each renewal, and some longtime RNs have seen this as an inconvenience,” the association said.

Jane Johnson, a massage therapist in Marietta, said her license renewal was approved the day after she applied for it and faxed in a copy of her driver’s license this year. But she agrees the law should be tweaked as Kemp is suggesting.

“That would be totally appropriate,” said Johnson, chairman of the Georgia Board of Message Therapy, a licensing panel.

Like the Georgia Nurses Association, the Georgia Pharmacy Association has been informing its members about the new identification requirements and urging them not to wait until the last minute to apply for their licenses.

“Many of them are already going ahead and filing and renewing their licenses,” said Jim Bracewell, the pharmacy association’s executive vice president. “And that is what we are encouraging them to do — is to do it today.”

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