How much will it cost for the state to hold the Alabama Trust Fund referendum on September 18? Approximately $3 million. How much time must one spend asking the state government for this public information before they share it? Approximately two-and-a-half days.
On Thursday, I was assigned the seemingly simple task of calling the Alabama Secretary of State’s office to ask how much a referendum would ultimately cost Alabama taxpayers. This task was assigned as research for an article already in development. For this reason, I’m inclined to believe that our publisher, who assigned the task, wasn’t trying to play a prank on me. That said, it would have been a really, really good prank.
It began with the Secretary of State’s office. I called the number for the office listed on the website (334-242-7200) and asked how much it was going to cost to organize the September 18 referendum. I was then transferred to the Alabama Department of Finance. When they answered, I repeated my question. Immediately thereafter, I was transferred to the Elections Office. Since the Elections Office is a subdivision of the Secretary of State’s Office, that technically constituted my first telephonic lap around the state government. And then I was sent around the track a few more times.
When I asked the Elections Office (the first time) how much it would cost to organize the referendum, they transferred me to the Alabama Department of Finance. I repeated my question to them. The only number they gave me in response: the phone number to Governor Bentley’s Press Secretary. So I called the number they gave me and repeated my question about the referendum costs verbatim into a voicemail. In response, I received a voicemail from Governor Bentley’s Deputy Director of Communications, Jeremy King. Sure enough, the only number he was able to give me was the phone number to the Secretary of State’s office.
I was back where I started. The next day, Friday, I called the Secretary of State’s office and repeated the exact same question I had asked the day before to similar results—more phone transfers. This time, however, no one would answer my transferred call. The phone would ring a few times, but the Secretary of State’s assistant consistently ended up back on the line. Eventually, my call was redirected to the personal voicemail of an Ed Packard in the Elections Office, a dead end for the day’s transfer circuit.
That following Monday, I once again called Jeremy King, and explained the difficulty I had faced in my journey to uncover the cost of organizing a referendum. He gave me the number to the office of Bill Newton, the Assistant Finance Director in the Executive Budget Office. I called the number and explained to Newton’s assistant the purpose of my call, repeating, in the process, the one question I had asked everyone: how much will the referendum cost the state?
I didn’t even get a chance to ask the question of Netwon himself before his assistant transferred me to the State Comptroller’s office. When I explained to the person from the State Comptroller’s office the purpose of my call, I was transferred once again. This time, I had been transferred to the personal cell phone of some adult male whose affiliation with the state government was never made clear. I figured there was no way this man could be any less help than the people I talked to before (whose affiliations with the state government were considerably less dubious). I asked him how much the referendum was going to cost taxpayers. His response? “I think you have the wrong number, because I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Once again, I was back on the phone with Jeremy King. And once again, he redirected me to Bill Newton’s office. This time, however, I was able to talk to Newton. When I asked him how much the referendum would cost, he very swiftly responded, “Approximately $3 million.”
With that, my two-and-a-half day adventure came to an abrupt end. I sat back in my chair, issued a sigh of relief, and waited for the giant eagles to swoop down and save me from the lava of Mt. Doom, because that is how erratic adventures are supposed to end.