After months of fierce opposition from residents in Randolph, Clay and Chambers counties, Senate Bills 476, 486 and 487 will not take effect July 1. The bills would have directed tobacco tax money collected in the counties to a three-member grant fund controlled by legislators.
“After meeting with the attorney general, he convinced us we should have re-advertised the bill, and that it was unconstitutional,” said Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, one of the bills’ three sponsors. “We’re not going to support something the attorney general rules unconstitutional.”
The meeting between Dial and attorney general came in response to a lawsuit filed in Clay County against Dial; Rep. Richard Laird, R-Roanoke; and Rep. Duwayne Bridges, R-Valley – the bills’ sponsors. Similar complaints had been filed in Randolph and Chambers counties.
Attempts to reach the attorney general’s office on Monday were unsuccessful.
The bills had attracted a firestorm of opposition in the rural counties after their initial appearance in local newspapers earlier this year. Efforts from a bipartisan organization of county officials led to a public House hearing in Montgomery in May where the opposition lashed out at the creation of a “slush fund” established by the bills. The group also questioned the motives of the legislators responsible for the bills and the reasoning for taking money away from the Randolph County Water Authority and the Clay and Chambers county commissions.
Dial said issues with the bills’ legality were rooted solely in its advertising. In their original wording, the bills intended to re-route the tobacco tax money toward building and maintaining a legislative district office, but the final draft of the bill didn’t make mention of the office. Instead, the money would go toward creating a grant fund, controlled by Dial, Laird and Bridges.
“A lot of people didn’t want us to open an office back up,” Dial said. “So we ended up taking that out of the bill, and that’s the part that made it unconstitutional.”
The attorney general’s position is the same one Gov. Robert Bentley took last month when he vetoed the bills. Legislators voted to override the governor’s vetoes.
Greg Varner, an Ashland attorney representing the Clay County Commission in the suit, called the decision by the attorney general a “great comfort,” but said he takes other issues with the bills besides their advertising.
“There are more problems with the bill than just procedural,” Varner said. “We hope the judge will rule that the substance of the bill is also unconstitutional.”
In particular, Varner said the bills’ creation of a “slush fund” that pools money to be used at the discretion of the bills’ sponsors is not just unethical – as he and other residents have maintained since the introduction of the bills – but also illegal.
“The law is pretty clear that the Legislature cannot create a committee of its members and fund it with taxpayer dollars and give themselves full discretion of the funds,” Varner said. “It has to have some supervision and involvement of the executive branch.”
Varner said another potential blow to the bill could come with the passing of the most recent Senate district lines, which cut Clay County in half. The western portion of the county, including much of Ashland, the county seat, will no longer be part of Dial’s Senate district, although the residents of the county would still pay a tobacco tax contributing to a fund only available to that district.
“Half of Clay County is continuing to pay for other districts,” Varner said. “I believe that is wholly unconstitutional.”
If a judge does not rule the content of the bills unconstitutional, they could be re-advertised and entered as new bills in the next legislative sessions.
“We haven’t met to discuss that yet, but I’m sure we will,” Laird said Monday. “I can tell you we will not amend any advertisements next time, that’s for sure.”
Laird was the only of the three legislators to appear at Friday’s court hearing in Clay County, but did not speak. He said the decision not to defend the bills was based on current funding needs for organizations such as volunteer fire departments and animal shelters in the counties aided by tobacco tax money.
“The only possible action the judge could take was to put everything on hold,” Laird said. “All those agencies that are getting moneys would go without funding for however many months it took to make a decision.”
With the new bills struck down, the tobacco tax would continue to operate under existing laws, meaning money that was to be taken from the Randolph County Water Authority and Clay and Chambers County commissions will be restored.
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.