tabacco

A rough and tumble fight over controversial tobacco tax bills in Clay, Chambers and Randolph counties ended last week, but not before lawsuits seeking to have the bills ruled unconstitutional were filed in Clay and Randolph counties and considered in Chambers.

Rep. Richard Laird, D-Roanoke, confirmed the three bills were dead for the present.

Laird said he met with representatives of the state attorney general's office in Clay County on Thursday prior to a scheduled court hearing on the Clay County bill on Friday. He said litigation would have put everything on hold for six months to a year, and the agencies that receive tobacco tax funding could not go without the money for that length of time. He said he asked the AG's office if the legislators could just concede the bills were unconstitutional so organizations such as volunteer fire departments and the animal shelter would get their money. The AG's representatives said they would check with the plaintiffs. When they did the plaintiffs agreed.

"These bills are dead," Laird said. They agreed the bills were improperly drawn although the legislature certified they were constitutional, Laird said. The wording of the bills, which were advertised as required, was changed before they were introduced in the legislature.

Laird has not met with the rest of the delegation, Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and Rep. DuWayne Bridges, R-Valley, but said they could re-consider and come back with bills another time. He thinks there is a strong possibility they would re-draw them. There are some areas where some improvements could be made and changes made, he said, but declined to give an example.

Senate Bills 476, 486 and 487 will not take effect July 1. In the different counties they would have taken monies away from organizations to be placed in a grant authority controlled by the three legislators.

Ashland attorney Greg Varner, who filed the lawsuits, said they had requested a preliminary injunction, and Circuit Judge George Simpson had set the hearing for Friday morning. Because of the changed wording, the state was not willing to enforce the bills. Varner agreed to continue Clay County's lawsuit regarding SB476 in this preliminary hearing. The final hearing will be in August, he said.

"We got what we wanted. I wanted a full preliminary injunction and effectively I got that. The chief law enforcement person for the state of Alabama said the bill was improperly handled by Dial and would not be enforced," Varner said.

"I think the attorney general's admission vindicates the bold decision made by the Clay County Commission to challenge the law. Now the commission will not be forced to lay off critical county employees nor end needed community services. We do agree with the attorney general that the law has procedural defects but we also believe the substance of the law will be deemed unconstitutional too.

"'Slush funds for campaigns,' to use Governor Bentley's words, are illegal. Taxing one district for the benefit of another is unlawful. Taxing Clay County more heavily than other counties violates the equal protection of the law. This lawsuit is about much more than procedural problems with the law," Varner stated in a press release from the Clay County Commission.

Varner expects the state to take the same position in the Randolph County litigation, and for an AG's representative, himself, and Circuit Judge Ray Martin to meet and mimic what occurred in Clay County, he said.

The spring session of the legislature is only about six months away and they could look at the bills then, said Laird.

Sen. Gerald Dial did not return telephone calls for comment but released a statement to the LaFayette Sun announcing that the set of three controversial tobacco tax bills were unconstitutional because changes were made to the bill and not re-advertised.

The distribution of monies will revert to the original formula in each of the counties without changes.

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