Alabama editorial roundup
Posted January 11
Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:
The Gadsden Times on the death toll of the state's highways:
There's no way to say this politely or diplomatically — 2016 was a bloody year on Alabama's highways.
State Troopers investigated 671 traffic fatalities last year, according to a news release from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. That was 144 more than in 2015; the increase was a whopping 27.3 percent.
The recent Christmas/New Year's holiday period was a snapshot of that trend. Between 12:01 a.m. Dec. 16 and midnight Jan. 1, 31 people died in wrecks investigated by troopers. That's up from 26 during the same period in 2015, a 19.2 percent increase.
Those numbers shouldn't be surprising. Troopers voiced concerns about the spiraling traffic death rate all year, plus this has been a longtime issue for Alabama. A report issued in 2015 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based on data compiled between 2003 and 2012, said Alabamians were nearly twice as likely to die in a highway crash than the average U.S. resident.
The reasons why also have been discussed at length:
Alabama has a lot of open, rural roads that make vehicle drivers or motorcycle riders more prone to mash the accelerator - and speed really does kill. The National Highway Traffic Association's annual Traffic Safety Facts report consistently links about a third of traffic fatalities to speeding.
It can be a while before medical help gets to drivers or riders who crash on those rural roads. Any doctor or first responder will confirm that quick treatment is the key to survival for people injured in those situations.
Budget problems have reduced the number of troopers on Alabama's highways. That lessens their ability to render assistance, enforce the traffic laws or serve as a deterrent to violators.
Most Alabamians wear their seat belts - the compliance rate was 93.3 percent in 2015, down from a high of 97.3 percent in 2013 and from 95.7 percent in 2014. That number ought to be 100 percent, though, because according to the CDC, simply buckling up can cut crash-related injuries and deaths in half. That's not enough proof? Twenty-two of those killed over the holidays in vehicles equipped with seat belts weren't wearing them.
One person who died during the holidays wasn't wearing a crash helmet, even though Alabama has for nearly 20 years mandated that for motorcycle riders. We understand the romance of the wind in a rider's face and hair; we've seen too often the painful reality when someone's head meets asphalt. The CDC says wearing a helmet when riding can reduce the risk of death or serious injury by two-thirds.
Drive down any busy roadway in the state — like Rainbow Drive or Meighan Boulevard — and you'll see people texting while driving, oblivious to everything else (including their fellow motorists). We've lectured about the danger there for years. (And don't get us started about intersections where people mistake the yellow signal for the green light on a drag racing Christmas tree, and think the red signal isn't official for 5 seconds or so.)
The new year is off to a tragic start in Gadsden with the death of three people when a car plunged into Black Creek. The circumstances remain under investigation, and we understand that wrecks sometimes simply are tragic accidents.
However, we challenge drivers here and across Alabama to do better at the factors they can control, and reduce this death toll. It's unacceptable.
The Decatur Daily on public education in the state:
When a state GOP executive committee member raised concerns about legislative efforts to erode the authority of the State Board of Education, Republican lawmakers responded with a collective gasp. "Who, us?"
It sounded as if all is cozy between legislators and the leaders of the state's public schools. GOP Executive Committee member Billy McFarland was either misinformed or just having a bad day when he proposed a resolution that would "denounce any effort to amend, alter or change the method by which members of the Alabama State Board of Education are elected." McFarland's statement in an email to fellow committee members that he "recently learned of plans to further reduce our elected State Board of Education's powers" was baffling, to hear the puzzled response from lawmakers.
Legislators' denials ring hollow.
Whether McFarland is correct lawmakers are actively considering measures that would change the way board of education members are elected, there can be no question the Legislature has sought to undermine the board of education and the department it oversees since 2010.
Every legislative session since Republicans "stormed the Statehouse" has included legislation that damaged the state's public schools. Some of it has been purely financial, shifting millions of dollars of non-educational expenses from the General Fund to the Education Trust Fund. Lawmakers also passed the Alabama Accountability Act, which annually drains tens of millions of dollars from public schools to private ones, and did so with no input from the State Board of Education or the education department. Charter school legislation, which largely circumvents the expertise and authority of the State Department of Education, also will drain money from public schools. A legislatively mandated report card system for schools and districts has added enormous burdens on the education department, with no benefit other than creating more obstacles for schools already dealing with high poverty rates.
And as if there was any mystery to the point of these efforts, the House Education Policy Committee chairwoman, a Decatur lawmaker, last session filed a bill seeking to make the state superintendent an appointee of the governor, not of the State Board of Education. That came one year after the same lawmaker sought to remove the state board from the confirmation process of the new charter school commission.
On Jan. 2, Decatur native and former Gov. Albert Brewer died. He was lauded around the state for his service on the Legislature and as governor. It was during Brewer's administration and through his efforts that the board of education became an elected body, and that it became the appointing authority for the state superintendent. Brewer also increased funding for public schools and increased teacher pay.
Brewer's efforts to strengthen schools stand in stark contrast to lawmakers' attacks on public education over the last six years.
Whether McFarland was correct on the specifics, he was certainly correct on the basics. The Legislature has been a persistent and powerful opponent of public schools generally, and the State Board of Education specifically, since 2010.
The Montgomery Advertiser on voting rights in the state:
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Dec. 28 message to Alabama leaders that policy moves making it harder for minorities to vote are unconstitutional was forceful and necessary.
The federal agency revealed an agreement the state has made to expand driver's license office hours, citing an investigation begun after Gov. Robert Bentley in 2015 ordered 31 part-time offices, many in poor, Black Belt counties, to close. The investigation found the closures disproportionately hurt black residents, which is illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
At the time, Bentley cited a budget shortfall as the rationale for shuttering the offices. It's been suggested the closures were intended as a wake-up call to state lawmakers after the Legislature failed to approve the governor's initiative to raise taxes in that year's session. If so, the move was poorly thought out.
The closures engendered broad criticism and bad press for the state as a place where racial prejudice still sways government actions.
The state was subsequently pressured into reopening some of the offices for one day a month, still too few hours to adequately serve the affected counties.
The new agreement doubles or triples the hours most Black Belt offices will be open and adds 2,020 hours of operation per year, according to the Associated Press.
That's a significant improvement, but it remains to be seen if the expanded schedules are sufficient to address disparities in services to black-majority counties or restore damaged public trust in Alabama leaders.
In recent years, lawmakers in Alabama and other states have approved voting regulations, such as strict photo ID requirements that are viewed by many as discriminatory because they disproportionately impact some elderly, impoverished and minority residents the right to vote. The provisions were passed under claims they were meant to combat voter fraud.
Alabama's one-two punch of first requiring IDs, such as a driver's license to vote, then making it much harder for some groups to obtain them, still requires scrutiny by federal courts.
The state's failure to allow any early voting in elections and restrictive absentee ballot regulations are also a limitation that should be re-evaluated. A narrow one-day voting window can be inconvenient for many people, including those traveling, the working poor or those without access to transportation.
One hopeful development: State lawmakers on the House Interim Committee on Driver's License Review continue to hold meetings to examine ways to make getting a driver's license easier, with a focus on better serving rural residents.
The committee will make recommendations to the Legislature during the upcoming February session. Letting legislators know that you strongly support voting rights for all eligible voters including the funding to equitably serve all state residents at driver's license offices will help improve our current environment.