It was a Hail Mary pass, but a flag was thrown on the play.
A statewide, or “general,” bill that would have allowed Jefferson County to reinstate its occupational tax is dead, at least for the 2012 regular session, one of the bill’s sponsors said Friday.
According to Rep. Jack Williams, time has run, and it’s uncertain whether the support was ever there to get it passed. What’s more, the remaining local bills, which first must win approval from Jefferson County’s legislative delegation, appear stalled while state budgets are certain to jam up the seven working days remaining in the regular session.
Williams introduced the bill this week, and on Thursday the County and Municipal Government Committee moved it to the full House for debate. Sen. Jabo Waggoner introduced an identical bill in the Alabama Senate.
However, after the bill passed the committee, David White, a reporter from The Birmingham News, asked Williams whether the bill excluded professionals such as doctors and lawyers, as the previous occupational taxes had. Williams said he told White that the bill included the same exemptions, but after examining the bill, he realized that the last draft had cut the exemptions.
“This is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me as an elected official,” Williams said Friday afternoon. “I’m not interested in who to blame. I think folks are sick of this and want us to solve the problem.”
Had the bill made its way into law, it would have given counties that had entered Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy the power to raise an assortment of taxes, including an occupational tax, in order to right themselves financially. As a general bill, it would have bypassed the county’s local delegation, where political divisions have killed other similar bills.
Williams and others had argued that the bill is a statewide problem, and not just a Jefferson County problem. Because the state has refused to support the “full faith and credit” of a local government, that calls into question whether any local government, especially county governments, are credit worthy without the state’s backing.
The bill had been drafted by a number of people, including the county’s bankruptcy lawyers and lobbyists, Commission President David Carrington said Friday. Carrington said he thought Williams understood the exemptions had been excluded.
But Williams did not. Embarrassed by the change, Williams said the bill could not pass.
“Without the ’89 law [the original occupational tax] to compare it to, you wouldn’t know the exemptions weren’t there,” he said.
Before the legislature repealed the original occupational tax, exemptions for professionals had long been a contentious issue. Doctors and lawyers, who pay professional fees to the state, were not required to pay the tax, unlike their secretaries and assistants.
Williams says that the only hope for the bill now is a special legislative session, and that would require the support of the governor. However, county officials have said that Gov. Robert Bentley has kept the county at arms’ length since the county declared bankruptcy over his objections last year.
“For this to work, we need to get the governor engaged, and if we get the governor engaged we can get the Legislature engaged, but to do that we have to have a united front,” Williams said. “I think right now we’re headed to a special session if we can get an agreement.”