Robert Bentley calls license office closures a funding problem

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Gov. Robert Bentley on Wednesday said it’s up to lawmakers to come up with funding to reopen 31 rural driver’s license offices that were shuttered this fiscal year.

“I do feel sorry for the rural areas. I do feel sorry for those who have to drive distances to get a driver’s license but the Legislature chose this. They chose not to fund these agencies,” Bentley said Wednesday.

The governor said he is in discussions with lawmakers about how to reopen the offices, at least some of the time, but so far nothing has been finalized.

The closures have become the latest point of contention between legislators and the governor. Bentley argued that lawmakers caused the closures when they rejected tax increases. Lawmakers have questioned the need for the closures, saying the state is saving little money while creating a hardship for people in rural, poverty-stricken areas of the state.

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency last month announced the closures of the satellite offices – where a state examiner would typically give driving tests one or two days a week – because of budget cuts.

House Ways and Means General Fund Chairman Steve Clouse said Bentley had discussed using money from the governor’s emergency fund to reopen the offices until February and then asking lawmakers to approve a supplemental appropriation, or tax, when they return in February for the 2016 legislative session.

Bentley said he, “talked about that, but we may not do it that way.”

“There are different ways we could do this, but it still comes down to a funding issue. If the Legislature wants to do their job and fund these offices then they are going to have to come up with some money. It’s really up to them,” Bentley said.

However, Clouse said he was unsure where additional state dollars would come from for ALEA.

“The money is just not there,” Clouse, R-Ozark, said

State agencies last week announced the closure of state parks, license offices and National Guard Armories because of funding reductions in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

Shuttering the license offices has created the greatest backlash. U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell asked the Department of Justice to investigate the impact on minorities since Alabama requires a photo identification to vote. Black lawmakers held a news conference with the Rev. Jesse Jackson last week criticizing the closures as an added burden on poor, rural families who already struggle with transportation.

The offices were largely located in county-owned buildings and a state examiner would travel to the offices to give driving tests typically one day a week. An ALEA spokeswoman said last week that the department was on track to spend $100,000 on travel to staff the offices.

ALEA Secretary Spencer Collier has called the closures a business decision to allocate existing staff to the state’s 44 fulltime offices that serve a much higher number of people each week.

The 31 locations in 2014 collectively issued 5,000 learners permits, 3,149 driver’s licenses and gave 10,587 permit exams, according to numbers from ALEA.

Bentley said one of the possibilities under discussion was to have the rural offices open twice a month, instead of once a week.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

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