By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — A Senate bill that would expand hours of operation at many rural and largely minority driver’s license offices got a favorable report in committee Tuesday.
SB90, sponsored by Sen. Hank Sanders (D-Selma), received a unanimous favorable report from the Senate Committee on Government Affairs and will now head to the Senate floor for debate.
The bill would require the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to operate at least one driver’s license office in each county for at least one day each week. The bill comes after nearly two years of turmoil over a slate of closures and hour reductions in 2015.
A similar bill by Sanders passed the House and the Senate last year but was pocket vetoed by the Governor, who cited budgetary restraints. The previous version of the bill required offices to be open two days a week.
The Governor request an amendment reducing it to one day a week, but there was not enough time to change the bill last year, Sanders said.
“Driver’s licenses are extremely important,” Sanders told APR. “They are important to be able to drive. They are important for all kinds of commercial transaction. They are important to be able to travel. They’re important to vote.”
Sanders said the State needs to make it easy to get a driver’s license. If they don’t, he said, people will drive without a license.
“Often, they have to go out of the county that they are in to be able to get a driver’s license,” Sanders said. “It’s simply not right. Alabama is simply better than that.”
In December, the US Department of Transportation reached an agreement with Alabama to expand driver’s license office hours after they determined that black citizens were hurt disproportionately by the closures and reduction implemented by ALEA in 2015.
Citing budget concerns after the Legislature refused a list of tax increases by the Governor, ALEA and the Governor closed 31 part-time offices in majority rural and minority counties where ALEA officials gave driving tests and issued licenses once per week.
The closures left a third of Alabama’s 67 counties without an office. Eight of the 11 counties with closures had majority African-American populations.
The agreement reached between the Governor and the US Department of Transportation in December required the State to double or triple office hours in many Black Belt counties. But many offices are still only operating three days per month.
Sanders said he was hoping the bill would get the same approval from lawmakers it got last year but with a signature from the Governor this time.