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Alabama ‘English-Only’ Ad Raises Specter of Lost Federal Transport Money

12:58 PM EDT on May 3, 2010

Some campaign commercials win instant fame, while others go the infamy route -- as is the case with an ad cut by Alabama Republican Tim James, who promises voters that if he is elected governor this fall, drivers' license exams will be given only in English.

"This is Alabama," James tells the camera in the ad (viewable above). "We speak English. Learn it."

Apart from the political scandal generated by the proposal, which James claims would enhance road safety, requiring prospective drivers to take licensing exams in English could put Alabama's federal transportation funding at risk if a civil rights complaint is filed against the state. As the Gadsden Times explains today in an editorial that mildly criticizes James' move:

Hispanic woman in 1996 sued the state, claiming it violated Title VI of
the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which bars discrimination by race, color
or national origin in any program receiving federal funds.

lost in federal court, but the ruling was overturned by the U.S.
Supreme Court in 2001. However, there was a catch in the state's
“victory.” The court didn't rule on the merits of the complaint, only
that a private individual could not sue over a Title VI violation. It
said such suits only can be brought by a governmental entity, and the
only penalty a state could face was loss of funding from federal
agencies. ...

politicians often rail against the federal government, until there's a
chance the federal money spigot might be turned off.

Should James get a chance to implement English-only license exams from the governor's mansion -- which remains to seen, given his GOP rival's polling lead -- the decision to sanction Alabama would likely rest with the Obama administration. And given the national blowback that has greeted Arizona's stringent new immigration law, not to mention the U.S. DOT's recent civil-rights move against a big-ticket Bay Area transit project, it's easy to see the threat of lost federal transport funding becoming reality.

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