Thursday, May 19, 2016

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1510: The fight to reopen driver's license offices

  Sometimes things just seem to be working out, but there is an old saying: “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” That thought repeated itself in my mind over and over again. I was so thankful because I knew the way things were working was much bigger than me. It was even bigger than all those who helped in so many ways. Sometimes things just seem to be working out, but I know not to count our chickens before they hatch.

  In late September 2015, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) announced that 31 driver's license offices would be closed. As a result, citizens in 28 counties would have to travel to other counties to secure driver’s licenses. In the Alabama Black Belt, 11 of 13 counties did not have a driver's license office. Because driver licenses are the number one document for driving, voting, travel by plane, business transactions, etc., outrage was strong. The matter was even picked up by MSNBC and other national news organizations.

  In October, the Alabama Beverage Control Board (ABC) announced that it had kept certain state-owned liquor stores open even though they were losing money. When the media asked why, its leader stated, “We don’t want citizens to have to travel to the next county to get a bottle.” The simmering outrage exploded. The Bentley administration wanted people to travel to other counties to secure driver’s licenses but not to buy liquor. To dampen the outrage, the Governor Bentley announced that each of the 28 counties would have a driver’s license office open one day a month. Some people settled for this token but others persisted in outrage.

  I helped lead a caravan through 12 counties over two days. Leaders and citizens came forth in each county. The events were well covered by the media, but things did not change. We then held an event on the Capitol steps dramatizing Alabama’s priority of booze over voting with the chant, “Give us the vote, not just the bottle.” I wrote and spoke about the matter on various occasions. I also learned that the U. S. Department of Transportation had launched an investigation into the matter.

  When the 2016 regular session of the Alabama Legislature commenced, I introduced a bill (Senate Bill 172) to require ALEA to operate driver’s license offices in every county at least two days a week. I did not expect the bill to go anywhere. It came up in the Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee agenda without my request. I did not expect it to pass. It passed by a vote of 13-0. I did not expect it to be considered by the full Senate. It came up without my request. It passed by a vote of 27 to 3. Sometimes things just seem to be working out.

  After SB 172 had been in the Alabama House for weeks, I contacted Rep. John Knight. I asked him to advise me more on which representative would be best to handle the bill in the House. He advised me that Rep. Artis McCampbell would handle it. A lot of his counties were also hurt by the closings.

  Then I opposed a Greene County gambling bill in the Senate. Representative McCampbell was the sponsor in the House. I wondered whether this would affect Representative McCampbell. It did not. The issue was bigger than us. He got SB172 out of the House State Government Committee on a unanimous vote, with an amendment to which I had agreed. to reduce the two-day minimum to a minimum of one day a week. But the bill did not move in the House. I almost gave up.

  It was the last day of the legislative session. The session would end at midnight. It was after 11 pm. I really gave up. At 11:50 pm, I received a text from Rep. John Knight that SB 172 passed the House at 11:47 pm. I expected it to come back to the Senate for concurrence with the amendment that reduced the two days a week to one day a week. The Senate President Pro Tem told me it could not be done. I gave up again.

  The next day, I asked Sharon Calhoun, my Senate assistant, to check on the status of SB 172. She said it was sent to the governor at 11:50 the night before. I checked the record and discovered that Representative McCampbell had tabled the amendment because the bill passed late on the last night. Therefore, the bill passed with a two-day requirement. My hopes rose again. Sometimes things just seem to be working out.

  We had come so far, but it was still not over. The governor could veto the bill without any opportunity for us to override, because the legislative session had ended. Representative Knight, Representative McCampbell and I moved to prevent the governor from vetoing the bill. We agreed to work together in the next special session to reduce the two-day minimum requirement to one day. Things just seem to be working out.

  Governor Bentley had ten days after the session ended to sign the bill into law or let it die by pocket veto. Late in the afternoon on Friday, I received a call from Jared White of the governor’s staff. He said that the governor decided to pocket veto the bill. I expressed my strong disappointment. The bill was dead for this session. Sometimes things seem to be working out, but we cannot count our chickens until they hatch.

EPILOGUE – What is the difference between luck and blessings? I believe luck is random. I believe blessings are part of a larger plan. I believe in blessings even when they appear to be bad luck.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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