Randolph County tobacco tax bill now law: Bill takes from local water authority, gives to ag center project
by Tim Lockette
May 29, 2013 | 5300 views |  0 comments | 180 180 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A portion of Randolph County's tobacco tax revenue, once earmarked for the local water authority, will now go to an organization that has plans to build a show barn.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Robert Bentley confirmed Monday that Bentley has signed HB558, a bill that reallocates the county's tobacco tax revenue. The bill has been the subject of heated debate within Randolph County.

"This is a mean-spirited bill," said Randolph County resident Roy Terry, an opponent of the bill.

For years, Randolph County gave 10 percent of the proceeds from its tobacco tax to the Randolph County Water Authority, with a charge to spend the money on water lines to connect new customers not served by the county water system. The bill's sponsors, Rep. Richard Laird, I-Roanoke, and Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, have said the bill brings the water board about $110,000 per year. Water board chairman Vester Whitmore said the authority has seen only about $150,000 in revenue from the tobacco tax over the last two years and five months.

The new bill cancels the water authority's earmark for the money and give it instead to the Randolph County Equine and Agricultural Association, a group formed last year to build an agricultural center and show barn in Roanoke.

Dial, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said the show barn would give young people in the mostly rural county a place to learn about agriculture and show off their skills in raising animals.

"These kids have no place to go," he said. He said there's strong interest in horse shows and cattle shows, and the barn, once built, could attract people to the local area.

Dial said the water authority hadn't fulfilled its mandate of spending the tax money on installing new water lines to serve county residents not yet on the water system. Instead, he said, the water board built itself a new headquarters.

"The water board took the money and built a multi-million-dollar facility," he said.

Whitmore, the water board chairman, said the board took out a federal rural development loan to move the water board from Roanoke to Wedowee. He said the new location, in the center of the county, is a more convenient location for customers. He said the new building cost about $1 million.

Whitmore said the water board has run water lines to 115 new customers with the tobacco tax money. The organization gets most of its money from customer's fees, he said, and uses federal grants or loans to extend lines to some areas.

"The tobacco tax money was to pay for lines that the federal program wouldn't cover," he said.

The newly signed bill also prohibits the county's Industrial Development Council from spending its portion of tobacco tax revenue on salaries. Some in Randolph County claimed that the bill was an effort to punish the organization's director, Cotina Terry, for not supporting Dial and Laird politically.

Roy Terry, Cotina Terry's father, has led a letter-writing effort against the bill. He sent letters to area newspapers over the weekend urging Bentley not to sign the bill. In fact, the bill had already been signed last week, though the signing was not recorded in legislative records as of Tuesday.

Terry said he was "disappointed" in the governor's decision.

Bentley spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis, in an emailed statement, said the governor had determined the bill was advertised properly and therefore observed local courtesy in signing the bill. The Alabama Constitution gives the state Legislature control of many county functions, and lawmakers and governors have historically stayed out of the way of county-specific bills that have the support of a county's lawmakers.

Attempts to reach Laird, the House sponsor of the bill, for comment were unsuccessful Tuesday.

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