Legislature approves bill to move tobacco tax to proposed agricultural and equine center in Randolph County
by Tim Lockette
May 22, 2013 | 4429 views |  0 comments | 158 158 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — In the closing hours of the legislative session, the Alabama Senate gave Rep. Richard Laird, I-Roanoke, one of the things he wanted — $107,000 a year to help build a livestock show barn in his hometown.

But even if Gov. Robert Bentley signs the bill into law, it might not end Randolph County's debate over how to fund the show barn project.

"There's so much politics in this right now," said Jimmy Fetner, president of the Randolph County branch of the Alabama Farmers Federation and an organizer of the show barn project.

Lawmakers voted Monday night to approve a bill, submitted by Laird, that would change the way Randolph County distributes its revenues from tobacco tax.

At present, 10 percent of that money, or about $107,000 per year, goes to the Randolph County Water Authority to help install new water lines. If the bill is signed, that money would instead go the Randolph County Equine and Agricultural Association, a nonprofit incorporated by Fetner last year to build an agricultural center with a show barn.

Laird said Tuesday that he decided years ago to move the tobacco tax money from the water board to some other project. He said the water authority hasn't completed projects that were supposed to be paid for with tobacco tax.

Attempts to reach the Randolph County Water Authority on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Fetner, of the Equine Association, said the area needs the kind of show barn and agricultural center his group plans to build.

"We're trying to do our kids a justice," he said. "We're trying to keep them out of jail."

The show barn, he said, would also be an agricultural center where people could learn about planting crops and raising cattle and other livestock.

Laird said he wasn't sure how much the project would cost.

"I think they're going to build it in stages," he said.

He said he expected the group to start small, perhaps with a fence and a concession stand, and build from there over time.

Laird is already looking for other sources of funding for the show barn project. Members of the Randolph County School Board say he approached them recently with a deal: He could get them $200,000 from a state program for "at risk" schools if they'd promise to keep only $25,000 of it. Laird wanted the other $175,000 to go to the Equine Association, school board members say.

Randolph County Schools superintendent Rance Kirby said neither he nor the board could make that deal.

"I'm not against an ag center," Kirby said. "I wish them well. But I can't give money from the Education Trust Fund, labeled for at-risk programs, to a private nonprofit."

Laird said it was school officials who approached him with a request for $25,000 to put security cameras in schools. He combined that with a request for help with the show barn and pitched the $200,000 grant request to the Alabama Department of Education.

"I've been in this business for a long time and I've never had anybody refuse money like that," Laird said.

Craig Pouncey, the deputy superintendent of Alabama schools, said the money would have come from the Governor's At-Risk Program, a program set up in the 1990s. At one time, Pouncey said, the money went to schools identified as at-risk under the state's original school accountability program. Lately, the money, roughly $10 million per year, has been used to pay for projects in school districts with little tax revenue.

"My charge is to make sure those districts' needs are met, and those needs vary from district to district," he said.

Pouncey said he believed other districts had used the money for agricultural centers to boost their agricultural education programs. He said that due to the disagreement over how the money would be used in Randolph County, the Education Department probably wouldn't move forward with the $200,000 grant.

"I think what we're dealing with here is a conflict in local politics," he said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
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