Residents want local hearing for tobacco tax bill
by Brian Anderson
banderson@annistonstar.com
Apr 15, 2013 | 3379 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Some Randolph County residents think their local elected officials are ducking calls and ignoring their requests to discuss an unpopular tobacco tax bill, but a state senator said the outrage is news to him.

Roy Terry, a spokesman with the East Alabama Bipartisan Coalition, said no one from his organization has heard from Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville or Rep. Richard Laird, I-Roanoke, since Friday about scheduling a meeting in Wedowee to discuss a bill that would alter how a tobacco tax is used in the county.

“What they’re trying to do is very unpopular,” Terry said. “They don’t want to face the public.”

Terry said no one he has spoken to has heard from the representatives despite numerous phone calls and emails.

Dial said, however, he hasn’t heard anything about a meeting.

“I’ve not got one phone call, received one letter about it,” Dial said. “No one has asked me to go to a meeting. That’s all lies.”

Dail said he had been out of the county all weekend and Monday, and would be returning to Montgomery today.

Efforts to reach Laird on Friday and Monday were unsuccessful.

The bill in question is a rewrite of vetoed legislation from last year, which alters how tobacco tax money is used in the county. A provision in both bills would limit hiring power for the county’s Industrial Development Council. Last year’s bill contained the creation of a “grant fund” that would have pooled money away from the Randolph County Water Authority – 10 percent of the total tax – into the fund controlled by Laird and Dial.

Speaking with The Star earlier this year, Laird said the 2013 version of the bill gives the 10 percent of the funds to the recently created Equine and Agriculture Association, a nonprofit group that hopes to construct an agriculture center.

Wording eliminating money used to hire a staff member for the Industrial Council is still in this year’s version of the bill.

“It’s unprecedented to stop economic development in a rural county, which are already at a disadvantage,” Terry said. “This is an attempt by Laird and Dial to punish Randolph County for not going along with their slush fund last year. It’s like they’re saying if we can’t control everything, we’re going to kill it, and that’s exactly what they’re doing.”

Bob Fincher, chairman for the 3rd District of the Alabama Republican Party, said he believes the local delegation has shown too much power, and the lack of response to residents requests to talk have become a habit for both men.

“I guess they don’t want to hear from people,” Fincher said. “They’re not interested in the public’s opinion.”

Last week Laird and Dial arranged a public meeting in Montgomery, which was later canceled due to the weather. Terry asked residents to call Laird and Dial to schedule a public hearing for Monday in Wedowee while the legislature wasn’t in session.

Dial said he plans to reschedule the meeting in Montgomery for next week, and will get notice to local media as soon as he knows the date and time of the meeting.

“Maybe somebody’s heard from them, but I don’t know anyone who has,” said Vester Whitmore, chairman of the Randolph County Water Authority. “I don’t know if they have their phones turned off or what, but they’re not talking to us.”

Whitmore said the Water Authority received $45,000 last year from the tobacco tax. Outside of the water fees they charge customers, it’s the only money the authority receives for their budget.

“There’s a lot of poor folks whose wells are contaminated, who don’t have water to drink,” Whitmore said. “People don’t realize this is the only tax we get to help these people.”

Whitmore said even if residents could speak to Laird and Dial, he thinks the passage of the bill is already a “done deal.”

“When they were going to have that meeting in Montgomery Thursday, the bill had already been in committee Wednesday,” Whitmore said. “We’re just getting the run around.”

Whitmore said his only hope now is that Gov. Robert Bentley will veto the bill.

“Hopefully, him being the man that he is, he’ll see what’s going on and do what’s right,” Whitmore said.

Terry said the next step for the coalition is to ask other representative in the state to vote against the measure.

“I’m still telling people to keep calling too,” Terry said. “Let me know if you hear anything from them.”

Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.

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