By Sen. Hank Sanders
When one community gets a cold, another community gets pneumonia. I heard variations of this wise saying many times as I grew up. It was said to illustrate how the exact same thing can adversely impact some much more than others. This is not only true of groups but of geographical areas. When Alabama gets a cold, the Alabama Black Belt gets pneumonia. Alabama has a real bad budgetary cold. However, the Black Belt has economic pneumonia.
The Alabama General Fund Budget was seriously underfunded in spite of taking $80 million from public education. The General Fund Budget was enacted only after protracted struggles in the 2015 Regular Legislative Session and two special legislative sessions. It was signed by Alabama’s Governor on September 17, 2015. On September 30, less than two weeks later, I received two phone calls bearing bad news of a troublesome cold for Alabama and walking pneumonia for the Alabama Black Belt. When Alabama gets a cold, the Black Belt gets pneumonia.
Let’s look at the symptoms. The first call came from Frank Barnette, the executive assistant to the Adjutant General of the Alabama National Guard. He said that six National Guard Armories will be closed because of budget cuts. Two of the six are in the Alabama Black Belt – Demopolis (Marengo County) and Marion (Perry County). Two more are on the list to be closed in 2016 and17: Camden (Wilcox County); and Fort Deposit (Lowndes County). The Alabama Black Belt is less than one-fifth of the 67 Alabama counties but is 30 percent of the cutting in National guard armories. When Alabama gets a cold, the Alabama Black Belt gets pneumonia.
Maybe you are thinking, “So what if these armories do close?” Well, let me tell you. National Guard armories are critical for small Alabama towns. In addition to training National Guard personnel, they are the only gathering places for big occasions. They often serve as polling places on voting day. Most importantly, they lift local economies. With closings, jobs will be lost. When armories close, struggling communities struggle more. When Alabama gets a cold, the Black Belt gets pneumonia.
The second call came from Alabama’s Commissioner of Conservation. He was the bearer of more bad news of pneumonia: five state parks will be closed. Three of the five are in the Alabama Black Belt: Paul M. Grist near Selma in Dallas County; Roland Cooper in Wilcox County and Bladon Springs in Choctaw County. The Alabama Black Belt is less than 20 percent of the Alabama counties but is hit with more than 60 percent of the park closings. When Alabama gets a cold, the Alabama Black Belt gets pneumonia.
Some will say, “So, what? There are plenty of other parks.” And this is true. However, the economies of these counties will suffer. Those who come to these rural areas to visit parks also spend money in local stores. They boost the local economy. They will not be coming, and jobs will be loss. The joy of the people who visit will be reduced. Some folks have been coming to these particular parks for a quarter of a century or more. They do not want to go to other parks. The impact will reach far and spread wide. When Alabama gets a cold, the Black Belt gets pneumonia.
Even my e-mail brought news of pneumonia. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency is closing 31 satellite offices that issue driver’s licenses. Eleven of the 31 counties suffering closings are in the Alabama Black Belt: Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Perry, Pickens, Sumter and Wilcox. Put another way, drivers’ license offices will be closed in 85 percent of Black Belt counties but only 30 percent of the remainder of the state. Black Belt counties make up less than 20 percent of the 67 counties but are hit with 42 percent of the closings. Black Belt citizens will have to travel farther to get driver’s licenses. They will have to pay someone to take them the longer distance. The poor will have to spend money they don’t have. People who are able to travel to other counties will spend more of their hard-earned money in the places they travel to, thereby further weakening the economies of their home counties. More people may well drive without licenses. The impact of these closings will be far-reaching. When Alabama gets a cold, the Black Belt gets pneumonia.
The most far reaching impact will be on voting. Alabama requires Photo ID to vote when there is no need. The driver’s license offices also issue photo ID to vote. Hundreds of thousands of Alabama citizens are without photo ID and therefore cannot vote. Many are in these 11 counties where the driver’s license offices will be closed. This impact is compounded by the closing of National Guard armories that often serve as voting places. When Alabama gets a cold, the Alabama Black Belt gets pneumonia.
All this happened over just two days during this week. I hear rumors that senior citizens programs may also suffer. We don’t know what other news of pneumonia will come in the days ahead. Signs of budgetary colds abound in Alabama. But symptoms of pneumonia abound in the Alabama Black Belt. When Alabama gets a cold, the Black Belt gets pneumonia.
EPILOGUE – We take for granted the services provided by the state until they are about to be taken away. We don’t understand how state services support all of us in so many ways. We don’t understand how the same things that affect us a little can affect others a whole lot. The old folk would say, We don’t miss our water until the well runs dry.