Leah Nelson: With HB 129, lawmakers have an opportunity to pass business-friendly legislation that will help Alabamians get back to work. They should jump on it.

Leah Nelson: With HB 129, lawmakers have an opportunity to pass business-friendly legislation that will help Alabamians get back to work. They should jump on it.

By Leah Nelson, Alabama Appleseed

The moment we’re living though has been called the most unequal recession in modern history. Individuals, families, and businesses are all struggling – and Alabamians who lack wealth are struggling the most of all. Alabama needs a boost.

Fortunately, lawmakers have before them a business-friendly bill with the potential to help. House Bill 129, sponsored by Rep. Chris Pringle (R-Mobile), would end the practice of suspending drivers’ licenses for most reasons unrelated to road safety. 

As of Jan. 21, 2021, about 100,000 Alabamians had their licenses suspended for failure to pay traffic debt, failure to appear at hearings about those tickets, or because they were convicted of simple possession of drugs. These suspensions penalize behavior that has nothing to do with dangerous driving. We all suffer the consequences.

Research shows that needlessly suspending licenses suppresses employment and consumer spending and makes it harder for people to behave responsibly. Good-government groups like Americans for Tax Reform favor HB 129. So do major Alabama employers like Sabel Steel and Mercedes Benz. Why? Because this reform will make it easier for them to fill jobs. A study out of Arizona showed that more than 50 percent of people who lost their licenses lost their jobs. The same is no doubt true in Alabama, where a lack of public transportation makes it nearly impossible for people to get to work without access to a vehicle. As we seek to climb out of a recession that has prompted eye-watering levels of unemployment, HB 129 is a low-risk way of removing barriers that stop willing people from getting back to work.

Advocates for victims of domestic violence support HB 129 because they have seen firsthand where women in dangerous relationships are held back from escaping because without licenses, it is hard for them to get jobs, housing, or bank accounts. Lacking a license also exposes at-risk Alabamians to additional tickets, as many are forced to drive even when their licenses are suspended in order to take care of themselves and their families.

Desperation-fueled decisions to drive on a suspended license hurt more than just the drivers who make them. The current system can impact pocketbooks of all drivers because people who lack a valid license cannot get insurance. If you are in an accident where an uninsured driver is at fault, it’s your insurance premium that will rise. 

HB 129 is an opportunity to help Alabamians take charge of their lives, reduce barriers to employment, ensure a more equitable recovery, and help the whole state prosper. But as important as what Rep. Pringle’s bill will do is what it won’t. 

It won’t end all sanctions for failure to pay, failure to appear, or drug possession. The consequence for all three can be incarceration. HB 129 won’t change that.

It won’t change the penalties for speeding or other moving violations either. The penalty for speeding is a fine. If I got a speeding ticket, I’d have the money to pay the fine and move on. But when people who don’t have much money in the bank are ticketed, they can’t pay right away, and some can’t keep up with payment plans. That’s the reason they lose their licenses. The way things work now, poor people are punished more harshly for being poor, not because they are more dangerous drivers than people who can afford to pay a ticket right away. This bill would fix that. 

This bill also won’t cause the state to lose federal funding. Rep. Pringle has worked with the Alabama Department of Transportation and the Department of Human Resources to ensure that HB 129 keeps Alabama in compliance with federal law. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) does stand to lose some income from reinstatements – after all, if fewer licenses are suspended, fewer reinstatement fees will be charged and collected. But more Alabamians will be able to work, spend, and participate in the economy. 

HB 129 ends the practice of punishing poverty with license suspensions. It will help Alabamians get back to work. It will expand the tax base and improve prosperity for all of us, bring us in line with sister states like Mississippi, and keep Alabama growing. It’s a common-sense reform whose upsides far outweigh its drawbacks. It’s that simple. 

Leah Nelson is Research Director at the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization that advocates for justice and equity for all Alabamians. Reach her by email at leah.nelson@alabamaappleseed.org.