Clay, Randolph officials vent displeasure over tax diversion bill
by Brian Anderson
banderson@annistonstar.com
Apr 13, 2012 | 4344 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
WEDOWEE — A chorus of bipartisan and bi-county voices spoke out Thursday night against a local legislative measure that would divert tobacco tax money away from the Randolph County Water Authority.

And while the bark in Wedowee might have been loud, the bite from Montgomery left its mark: The bill passed the Alabama Senate floor just hours before the meeting began.

“It’s a rare occasion when both political parties come together on an issue,” said Todd Freeman, chairman of the Randolph County Republican Party, to a packed room of more than 100 residents at a town hall-style meeting at the Randolph County Courthouse. Freeman and County Democratic Party Chairman David Meddick were just two of the meeting’s sponsors that also included members of both Clay and Randolph County Commissions, Randolph County Chamber of Commerce, the Water Authority and County Industrial Development Council.

“It usually takes a death in the family, an emergency or a natural disaster,” Freeman said. “Well, we got a manmade disaster in Senate Bill 498.”

The legislation from Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, seeks to take 10 percent of the money from the tobacco fund for Randolph County — money currently going to the County’s Water Authority — to establish district offices for the local legislators.

But talking to The Star last month, Dial said the money actually would go toward grant funds to be shared by himself, Rep. Richard Laird, D-Roanoke, and Rep. Duwayne Bridges, R-Valley. The money would be appropriated at the legislators’ discretion.

The bill would also seek to limit the hiring practices of the Randolph County Industrial Development Council, eliminating funds from the tobacco tax that currently pay for a full-time position.

Several officials spoke out against the bill, denouncing the legislation which they say would eliminate essential services for growth in the economy in the county.

“You have to stand up and say this is enough,” said Kesa Johnston Dunn, an attorney from Roanoke and member of the Industrial Development Council. “You never ask, you never do what the consensus or majority want.”

The Water Authority Chairman, Jr. Whitmore, also spoke out against the bill, citing it would mean a loss of more than $50,000 a year for the authority. Money from the tobacco tax has helped to bring water to 30 households in Randolph County since 2010, he said.

No one at the meeting voiced support for the legislation.

Several of the officials who spoke out at the meeting accused the bill’s authors of dirty politics. Clay County Commissioner Wayne Watts suggested the reason restrictions of the industrial board were being imposed on Randolph County and not Clay County, where similar legislation is also waiting on the senate floor, came down to voting records.

“I don’t think he’d come after Clay County,” Watts said to a large applause. “We voted for him (Dial), Randolph didn’t.”

Ashland attorney Greg Varner, who unsuccessfully ran against Dial in the most recent election, took the notion one step further and suggested the restriction to the Industrial Board was a personal vendetta against one board member.

The remark was met with a loud “yeah!” from one man in attendance.

Speaking after the meeting, Dunn said a staff member for the board worked on a campaign opposing Dial’s, but would not say the member’s name, or which campaign they worked for. Dunn said she did not know if that had any bearing on the bill or the restrictions for the board written into the bill.

Neither Dial nor Laird, who were targets of much of the criticism, attended the meeting, although Freeman said both had been invited.

A key theme throughout the night from the speakers was the encouragement to call members of the House to ask them to oppose the measure. At one point during the night Wayne Watts and Randolph County Commission chairman Terry Lovvorn interrupted Dunn during her speech to say calls they had placed to both Laird and Dial were never returned.

“Please take time to call them,” Dunn said during her speech. “As I told one of them, my senator will not listen to me, will you?”

Several attempts throughout the week by The Star to contact Dial and Laird were unsuccessful.

Senate Bill 498 passed the senate by a vote of 23 to 2 and 4 abstained votes Thursday. It’ll next have to pass the House and be approved by Gov. Robert Bentley before the law takes effect.

Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star
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