- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:


Aug. 31

Decatur Daily on the legacy of the state’s legislators:

The train wreck is getting closer. It’s been coming round the bend for four years.

The heads of several state agencies warned last week that if the Legislature goes through with proposed budget cuts, the consequences will be dire.

Greg Lein, director of Alabama State Parks, said if funding is cut to the tune of $18.3 million, as proposed in the current General Fund plan, all 22 state parks will be forced to close. The Department of Conservation, which includes state parks, has lost millions to budget cuts in the past four years.

Jim Byard, director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, said the state will lose more than half the federal money it receives each year if the Legislature goes through with a proposed 54-percent budget cut.

Byard said the state must match the federal dollars in order to receive them. Without the matching money, the federal money dries up, shutting down improvement projects such as new utilities in low- and moderate-income communities.

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency will close all but four driver’s license offices if its budget is cut.

Alabama’s economic recovery from the 2008 recession has been slower than that of many states, and the state’s regressive tax structure has been revealed as fundamentally flawed. Now, a gaping hole of at least $200 million must be filled in the General Fund.

Lawmakers have borrowed money from a variety of trust funds the past four years to close budget holes, but that money is no longer available, and most of it must be repaid. To date, the Republican supermajority has resisted all discussion of new taxes and ending tax deductions.

What’s left is the stark reality of a failed state.

Lawmakers have cut budgets as far as can be cut. In fact, too many cuts have been made, affecting the delivery of government services to residents.

Gov. Robert Bentley has proposed some tax increases that are not popular with his fellow Republicans. The Democratic minority, which is powerless to influence legislation, isn’t buying into most of them, either.

Republicans now face the difficult task of actually governing Alabama, and there is no escaping the need for new revenue. They must ask themselves two questions before the second special session begins in September: Do they want to be remembered by history as the gang that couldn’t govern? Do they want to be remembered as the Legislature that shut down Alabama due to lack of political courage?




Aug. 30

The Dothan Eagle on the state’s voter identification law:

Anyone who has been to the polls in Alabama since the June 2014 primaries knows that a photo ID is necessary to cast a ballot. The Alabama Legislature passed its voter ID law in 2011, but it didn’t take effect until June 2014 — after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the summer of 2013.

Although then-Secretary of State Jim Bennett said there were few problems with the implementation of the law, the concept of voter identification is controversial, and litigation continues concerning similar laws in others of the 17 states in which photo ID is required.

Many argue that photo ID is required as a measure against voter fraud, and Alabama needs all the help it can get. Last week, Secretary of State John Merrill confirmed that in 10 of Alabama’s 67 counties - Choctaw, Conecuh, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Perry, Washington, and Wilcox - the number of listed active registered voters exceeds the population over 18 in the county. That’s more a sign of incompetence in voter roll maintenance than illegal activity, but certainly invites fraud.

Apparently Alabama lawmakers hope that the state’s voter ID law, which will ultimately be affected by litigation in other states, is a panacea for a cavalier election system. They’ve even made arrangements for voters without photo identification to receive one at no cost at driver’s license centers across the state.

However, Alabama Secretary of Law Enforcement Spencer Collier said last week that most of the state’s driver’s license offices will be shuttered because of budget cuts unless the Legislature comes up with additional revenue. Forty five offices are on the chopping block; by March, only four will remain - Huntsville, Montgomery, Mobile, and Birmingham.

For poor and/or elderly Alabama voters who would like to vote but don’t have a photo ID, closing all but four locations in far-flung cities essentially bars them from the ballot box. A free ID that requires distant travel is, effectively, a steep poll tax.

Perhaps Secretary Collier’s dire prediction is just more saber-rattling to spur entrenched lawmakers to action.

If not, the state can count on a visit from the U.S. Department of Justice.




Aug. 20

The Montgomery Advertiser on the jailing of defendants for failure to pay fines:

Poverty is not a crime. Too often in Alabama, however, the poor are thrown in jail or financially exploited for not being able to pay small fines for minor violations like traffic tickets.

The shameful practice has rightly been called the modern-day equivalent of debtor’s prison and is clearly illegal. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that cities can’t jail people simply because they are unable to pay fines, but the dictate has been broadly ignored.

The abuse mostly occurs when cash-strapped municipal courts farm out probation oversight duties to private companies that can tack on exorbitant fees for their services. Judicial Correction Services, the private probation company used by many Alabama cities, has charged as much as $40 in monthly fees to keep as profit, even if probationers can’t afford to pay their regular monthly payment.

The net result of the racket is spiraling debt, jobs lost, families needlessly separated by jail sentences and already hardscrabble lives ruined, all to make profit off the impoverished.

Case in point, Harriet Cleveland, a 50-year-old Montgomery resident who was babysitting her grandchild in 2013 when she was arrested and sentenced to 31 days in jail because she couldn’t pay fines for old tickets or the additional fees piled on by JCS. That case spotlighted efforts by two nonprofit groups - the Southern Poverty Law Center and Equal Justice Under Law - to end the extortionary practice through lawsuits and awareness campaigns.

The good news is they appear to be winning the fight.

In August 2014, the city of Montgomery agreed to drop the private probation company in order to end lawsuits over the jailing of indigent defendants for failure to pay fines.

Now the SPLC reports more than 50 Alabama municipalities have ended their contracts with JCS and many more are considering doing so. But some 80 other cities and towns continue to use JCS or other private probation companies to collect payments, leaving the door wide open for more potential abuse.

Yes, people who violate the law should pay what they owe in ticket fines and court costs.

But the restitution process must be reasonable, such as the standards Montgomery set in 2014 after the Cleveland lawsuit. They include requiring judges to determine if plaintiffs are indigent and, if so, letting them choose between paying $25 a month toward their debt or performing community service.

More Alabama cities should adopt similar humanitarian policies for poor probationers and drop private companies that have proved to be untrustworthy.

And not because of fear of lawsuits, but because it’s the right thing to do.



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