By Brian Lyman
In a change of course, Gov. Robert Bentley Friday evening announced that the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency would return driver's license examiners to 31 rural counties.
A statement from the governor's office said an examiner would spend at least one day each month in each of the counties slated to lose part-time examiners under budget cuts announced by ALEA at the end of last month. The schedule and timetable of the return was not immediately clear.
The moves set off a national controversy, with many expressing concerns that people in the affected counties, particularly black voters, would be unable to get identification required to vote. Bentley Friday denied any intention to deprive people of their voting rights.
"I recognize the closure of the 31 driver's license offices affects mostly rural areas of the state," Bentley said. "To suggest the closure of the driver's license offices is a racial issue is simply not true, and to suggest otherwise should be considered an effort to promote a political agenda."
The affected offices issued or renewed less than 9,000 driver's licenses and identification cards in 2014; the counties had just over 551,000 active or inactive voters that year. The number represented less than one-half of one percent of the voting population.
The totals were slightly higher in the 12 Black Belt counties that lost examiners: there, the offices issued or renewed 2,702 licenses and identifications in counties with 128,788 active and registered voters, or about 2.1 percent of voters.
Legislators in the counties said any difficulty accessing the ballot would be a problem. U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the closings, and met with Gov. Bentley Thursday on the issue. Bentley had earlier met with members of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and Rev. Jesse Jackson on the examiner withdrawals.
Sewell said in a statement the moves were "encouraging" but said the state nee to address the impact of budget cuts on rural Alabama.
"While better than closure, opening these DMV offices once a month provides only bare minimum access," the statement said. "The state of Alabama still must ensure that all Alabamians have an equal opportunity to obtain driver's licenses, which are the most popular form of identification used for voting. Alabama cannot require photo identification for voting and then make decisions to close DMV offices in communities that are disproportionately African American, rural, and low income."
ALEA said an $11 million cut to its budget, combined with staffing shortages in its district offices, required the removal of the part-time examiners. Both Bentley and ALEA have criticized the Legislature for not approving a budget adequate for state services. Legislators, in turn, have said ALEA could have used an increase in driver's license fees -- worth $12 million -- to alleviate the reductions. ALEA says that money offsets losses on manufacturing driver's licenses.
Bentley called Sewell "impulsive" for seeking a probe in a letter sent to the congresswoman earlier this month. In the letter, the governor wrote that "the resources used to provide services at the satellite locations were best needed elsewhere to ensure ALEA can fulfill its core functions."
But in recent days Bentley pledged to work with the Black Caucus on the closures, and had floated the idea of a "bridge loan" to keep the offices open. ALEA said it would seek $1.2 million in supplemental funding that, it said, would allow the return of the examiners. The agency is also exploring a public/private partnership to open a full-time driver's license office in Marengo County.
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