A proposed bill from state Rep. Richard Laird, D–Roanoke, and Sen. Gerald Dial, R–Lineville, would re-route tobacco tax money from the water authority in Randolph County and put it toward the creation of a “District Community Service Office” – essentially, a district office for local legislators.
The bill states 10 percent of the tobacco tax in the county would go toward funding “office space and sufficient personnel, office furniture, office equipment, telephone service, and accommodation.”
The proposal was news to members of the Randolph County Commission, who first heard of the proposed bill in a public notice in the local newspaper.
Speaking at the Randolph County Commission meeting Monday, commission Chairman Terry Lovvorn urged residents to read the bill, contact their representatives and give them their opinions. Lovvorn stopped short of giving his own. But after the meeting, Commissioner Lathonia Wright was more vocal.
“Water is a precious commodity,” Wright said. “That’s why we take away 10 percent of the tobacco tax for that. With the economy the way it is, why do they need an office?”
Having a district office for a local delegation isn’t out of the ordinary, according to Jerry Bassett, director of Alabama Legislative Reference Service.
“Generally, you use whatever source is available,” Bassett said on ways counties raise money for district offices. “It varies from county to county on how they do that.”
Columbus State University political science professor David Lanoue said reappointing the distribution of tax funds is common in legislation. In the case of a district office, it’s usually sold as a community asset, for the legislation to better serve the community.
Generally, that's done in coordination with local governments, said Glen Browder, a former congressman from Alabama’s 3rd District and Jacksonville State University political science professor.
Coordinating with local officcials is "not necessary,” Browder said. "But in my experience, it usually works best.”
But according to Wright, that line of communication between local and state officials doesn’t exist.
“They haven’t said anything about it to us,” he said.
Dial said the bill’s proposed creation of a district office isn’t really the intent of the legislation.
Speaking to The Star by phone on Tuesday, Dial said the 10 percent of the county tobacco tax wouldn’t be going toward creating an office and hiring a staff, which he said would cost more than is available. Instead, that money is going into a grant fund, controlled by Dial, Laird and Rep. Duwayne Bridges, R-Valley, to appropriate money to the area as they see fit.
“With the grant program, somebody will come to us, fill out a form, and we’ll vote where that money is going,” Dial said.
Which is just as troubling, to some local officials, as creating a district office.
Jr. Whitmore, chairman of the Randolph County Water Authority, said the authority receives between $3,000 and $3,400 per month through the tobacco fund, which has helped to get, by his estimate, 25 to 30 houses onto the county water system.
“It’s gotten a lot of folks out here upset,” Whitmore said. “They’re just cutting us out. If you ask me, their priority is in the wrong place.”
Several attempts Tuesday by The Star to reach Laird were unsuccessful.
Bill Stewart, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Alabama, said grant funds controlled by state legislators are rarely anything but a way to further their own cause come election time.
“It raises red flags to me,” Stewart said. “It looks like it’s primarily a pot of money that legislators control, and it’s used to enhance their re-election bid.”
Stewart said that, while not common, similar grant funds have been created in the past, and are generally doled out to constituents around election time. In particular, Stewart said a similar bill was proposed several years ago by Sen. Roger Bedford, D–Russellville, to much criticism.
“It doesn’t surprise me that people would be opposed to something like that,” he said.
But whether it’s a district office or a grant fund, Wright said the bottom line for him is that the money is already flowing to where he thinks it’s most needed -– the water authority.
“What they need to do is leave it alone,” he said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.