Four supporters and no opponents showed up at a Statehouse hearing on HB558, a bill that would take roughly $107,000 of annual tobacco tax revenue from the Randolph County Water Authority and give it to a new organization with plans to build a show barn in the county.
"This is something that will benefit farm families throughout Randolph County," said Rep. Richard Laird, I-Roanoke, at the hearing.
For years, Randolph County has given 10 percent of the proceeds from the county's tobacco tax to the Water Authority to help install new lines. Laird says the money, about $107,000 or $108,000, hasn't been put to use by the board and should be given to the Equine and Agricultural Association, a group that, according to Laird, intends to build a show barn for young people who've raised cattle and pigs for competitions.
The bill would also prohibit the Randolph County Industrial Development Council, which also receives funds from the tax, from using that money to pay salaries. A member of that council's governing board said the group’s executive director, Cotina Terry, makes about $37,000 per year.
Laird says lawmakers have redistributed the funds from the tax before. But this redistribution has generated protest in Randolph County, partly because of a similar bill proposed by Laird and Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, last year. That bill would have shifted the Water Authority money to a "district community service office" for Laird and Dial. That bill was passed, but vetoed by Gov. Robert Bentley after local residents complained that it was an effort to create a slush fund for Laird and Dial.
Randolph County resident Roy Terry, the father of Cotina Terry and the leader of a group opposed to Laird's current bill, said Laird wants to cut salaried positions from the Industrial Development Council because the council won't take its orders from Laird.
"He's trying to get rid of that position because he no longer controls it," Terry said.
Attempts to reach Cotina Terry, the director of the council, through her father were not immediately successful Wednesday evening.
Roanoke resident Jeff Nolen, who described himself as a newly appointed member of the Industrial Development Council, said the council wasn't prohibited from paying employees, though if the bill passed it would have to find another source of funding for salaries. He said the council was seeking a portion of the revenues from alcohol sales in Roanoke.
Nolen also said the council was poorly managed, with little money spent on recruitment of industry.
"We spend more on muffins; we've spent more on food to cover those meetings, than most people do on their grocery bill," he said.
Nolen also went on the attack against Roy Terry at the hearing, claiming that he had in the past been convicted of fraud in relation to the bankruptcy of his former business, Terry Manufacturing. Nolen's comments seemed to echo a statement Laird made on the floor of the House Tuesday, when he told legislators that "a convicted felon" had been sending them emails about his bill.
In a conversation with The Star, Roy Terry said he did have a felony conviction in his past.
"It is a fact that I did a guilty plea to a felony related to the bankruptcy," he said. He said the conviction was well known in the community and something he'd never tried to hide.
"I don't see where it is relevant," he said.
The public hearing itself was the subject of debate in Randolph County. Opponents of the bill asked Dial and Laird to hold a meeting on the bill in Randolph County, but they instead scheduled an April 11 hearing in Montgomery.
That hearing was cancelled due to bad weather, and county residents again called for a Randolph County hearing. A new hearing was scheduled for Wednesday — but the bill came up in the House on Tuesday and was passed before the Wednesday hearing was held.
"It was obvious that they were not planning to listen to the community," Roy Terry said.
Dial and Laird said nothing was amiss with the hearing. Dial chairs the Local Legislation Committee in the Senate, where the bill must get approval before it heads to a full Senate vote. Dial and Laird were the only legislators present at the hearing, but Dial said a quorum isn't required for a public hearing at which no vote is held.
"It's in Montgomery because it's a committee hearing," he said.
Dial said he wasn't sure when the bill would come up in the Senate. Senators are now working their way through "sunset bills" which reauthorize the existence of some state boards. Sunsetting must be completed before local bills can advance, Dial said. The sunsetting process has taken up multiple days of Senate action.
There are 10 days left in the legislative session.
Capitol and statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star.