They Got Your Number 

Will there be a truce in the war over social security numbers?

A proposed initiative to stop the state from requiring social security numbers for fishing, hunting and trapping applications probably won’t have enough signatures to get on the ballot in November, officials say. But the issue may become moot if the federal government accepts a new proposal from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services that would exempt fish and game applicants from the requirement.

Controversy about the use of social security identification for fish and game licenses, driver’s licenses, and other documents has been swirling in recent years as Congress has mandated broader use of the numbers in an effort to crack down on child-support offenders. The nine-digit numbers are used by an array of government agencies to find scofflaw parents and force them to make good on delinquent payments.

In 1998, Congress said applicants for state fish and game licenses must provide the numbers, and corresponding legislation was approved in the 1999 Montana Legislature. States that don’t follow the mandate risk losing their federal welfare and child support funding, which totals about $108 million in the current budget biennium for Montana. Detractors contend the move is a further invasion of their privacy, and they note that social security numbers are often used to fraudulently obtain credit cards, create false identities, and illegally secure other financial services. They say the numbers should be kept under tighter wraps, rather than used for more transactions.

In an effort to disembowel the requirement at the state level, Initiative 141 was drawn up by Missoula resident Gary S. Marbut, who also serves as president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association. Marbut contends Montana sportsmen and women are alarmed at the provision and want it tossed out. He conceded last week, however, that the issue is likely destined for the political boneyard, at least for now.

“I am a little skeptical that it will make it,” he says of I-141. “My read is that more people wanted to grouse about it rather than do something about it.”

Initiative organizers need to have a minimum 19,862 verified signatures filed with the Montana Secretary of State’s office by July 21. As of last week, only 4,431 signatures had been turned in by county officials, says state Election and Legislative Bureau Director Joe Kerwin.

“It doesn’t appear they’ll make it,” Kerwin says. “It could happen, but they have to get a lot of signatures.” The number of signatures required to qualify a ballot initiative is based on 5 percent of the total votes cast in the 1996 gubernatorial election, he says. To get on the ballot, I-141 needs to qualify in 34 voting districts. So far, Kerwin says, it has only qualified in four.

Marbut says that if the measure doesn’t make it to the ballot, the issue will likely surface again as a bill in the 2001 Legislature.

But Mary Ann Wellbank, administrator of the state’s Child Support Enforcement Division, confirmed last week that her agency plans to ask the federal government to allow residents to use their driver’s license number, instead of their social security number, when they apply for fish and game licenses. She expects the proposal to be submitted later this summer.

While the new federal and state rules say all people applying for driver’s licenses after Oct. 1 must reveal their social security numbers to state examiners, the Montana Department of Justice is drafting rules that would allow them to be put in a private file after they’re collected. Instead of using the nine-digit number on the new driver’s license, a computer-assigned 13-digit number would be used, says agency attorney Brenda Nordlund.

“I don’t anticipate that there will be a lot of problems,” she says of the proposal. “We are pretty careful about confidentiality, and we’ll continue to be careful.”

While Wellbank says she understands the concerns about identity theft and other problems related to the misuse of social security numbers, she’s also concerned about collaring people who don’t pay their child-support payments. In Montana alone, she says, about $170 million remains uncollected, and the figures run in the billions nationwide. The numbers, she adds, serve as an important investigative tool.

“Without social security numbers, we can’t firmly identify individuals or their assets,” she says. Wellbank says, however, that her agency has a variety of ways to find offenders, and several new tools were added as part of recent federal welfare reform. For example, all Montana divorce decrees and marriage licenses, as well as all applications for state professional and occupational licenses, now require social security numbers before they can be filed. The documents, as well as other information from the Department of Revenue, which collects state taxes, can be examined by child-support investigators.

Under state law, the revenue department also can release certain tax details to the Department of Justice; the Department of Labor and Industry, which runs unemployment and worker’s compensation programs; the Board of Regents, which governs the university system; the legislative fiscal analyst and the Office of Budget and Program Planning; the Department of Transportation; and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which can use the information to establish residency for fish and game license applicants.

While former revenue department attorney Paul Van Tricht maintains the state may be violating federal law by providing federal tax information to the fish and wildlife agency, revenue department spokesman Don Hoffman says the only details given to FWP officials are social security numbers, names and addresses—all of which can be transferred under the existing statute.

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