After weeks of activism, a bipartisan coalition of political leaders was granted a public hearing at the Alabama Statehouse to discuss a recently introduced House bill that would establish a pool of money controlled by three local legislators.
“It usually takes a tragedy to get so many leaders together” said Todd Freeman, chairman of the Randolph County Republicans. “This is a manmade tragedy going on in these bills.”
It was standing room only in the small conference room on the sixth floor of the Statehouse, as House committee members listened as opponents and proponents made their case for or against the bill.
Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, who presided over the meeting, said the committee will have to look closer at the presentations from both sides before further action is taken.
The issue was a hot topic in the rural county of around 20,000 residents last month after a local newspaper printed a nearly identical proposed Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineveille.
Senate Bill 486 would have established a “grant fund,” according to Dial, using 10 percent of money collected from tobacco tax in the county that currently goes to the County Water Authority. The “grant fund” would be controlled by Dial, Rep. Richard Laird, D-Roanoke, and Rep. Duwayne Bridges, R-Valley, to be used as they wished.
The bill also restricted the hiring practices of the Randolph County Industrial and Economic Development Commission, eliminating funds to hire a full-time employee.
Randolph County officials blasted the bill and within weeks of its first appearance, the County Commission, Chamber of Commerce and both political parties from the county wrote letters condemning the bill as detrimental to the economic development of the county.
The response culminated in a town-hall-style meeting in Wedowee last month when a coalition of leaders from the Randolph County Republicans and Democrats encouraged residents to contact Laird and Dial to withdraw the bill.
Last week, the governor vetoed Senate Bill 486. A statement from Gov. Robert Bentley’s office said the governor deemed it “unconstitutional” due to discrepancies between the intent, and the actual language of the bill. Specifically, Senate Bill 498 made no reference of a “grant fund,” but instead sought to use the money to establish an office for the local delegation.
At the meeting Tuesday, Dial questioned the governor’s judgment and said the veto was unprecedented.
“In all my years, I’ve never seen a bill get vetoed because it was unconstitutional,” he said. “That’s not the governor’s job to decide that. That’s what we have a judicial branch for.”
But county officials Tuesday expressed gratitude for the decision after weeks, they said, of Dial and Laird declining their invitations to talk about the bills.
“We were so happy someone finally listened to us,” said Kesa Johnston Dunn, an lawyer from Roanoke and a member of the Randolph County Industrial and Economic Development Commission. “Our local legislators wouldn’t, but the governor did.”
But the veto was a short-lived victory. On the same day, Laird introduced House Bill 785, which was nearly identical in language to Dial’s bill. The main difference was that it added a reduction of money going to the Industrial and Economic Development Commission –- a cut from 24 percent to 19 percent of the tobacco tax revenue – which would also be rerouted to the “grant fund.”
“With this bill, the commission might as well not even exist,” said Jerry Cotney, the chairman of the commission. Cotney said a combined investment of $700,000 from the city of Roanoke, the Randolph County Commission and the Randolph County Chamber of Commerce funded the development of an industrial park, which would be money completely thrown out if the commission disbanded.
Cotina Terry, the executive director of the Industrial and Economic Commission, called the grant fund a “slush fund,” and said the money taken from the commission would cause economic hardship for the rural county where more than 60 percent of the working population works outside county lines.
But Dial scoffed at the notion that the bill created a “slush fund” and called the remarks a “slap” to the people of Randolph County.
Dial said grant funds are nothing new and that the tobacco tax money wouldn’t exist for the county to begin without legislation from Laird and Dial. He questioned if members of the coalition would be happier to receive no money if it meant none could be used for the grant fund.
Dial also accused the Industrial and Economic Development Commission of ineffectiveness, and said the tobacco money was never intended to be used to support the board.
“If you’re 0 and 12 as a coach, you get fired,” Dial said. “The commission hasn’t created one job. Not one.”
Dial was the first to speak and left after his statements to attend a reapportionment meeting. He said he would listen to the recording of the meeting when he had a chance later in the day.
Laird spoke more cordially, and thanked his constituents for coming to the meeting, but questioned whether their efforts were being put to the best use.
“That was an impressive presentation,” he said before the close of the meeting. “I wish everyone here had gotten together when the Roanoke Hospital closed.”
Laird also denied receiving notification from officials that they were unhappy with the bill, but said he was happy to have had the chance to clear the air.
“This will take teeth out of their argument that they haven’t had a public meeting,” he said.
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.