During his remarks at a press conference in support of Amendment 14 on the upcoming ballot, Rep. Oliver Robinson channeled former Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford.
“We got to do things differently. We can’t keep doing the same thing over because we’d get the same results, as Larry Langford would say,” Robinson said at the Jefferson County Board of Education, to a room primarily occupied by supporters of the amendment and members of the press.
“I knew Larry Langford… I bet you he’d be standing here with several different things going on here, like we have trying to help a lot of people in our county,” Robinson said. “He wasn’t going to sit back and do the same things over again. So I say to you today, we must move forward as a city and a county to make sure our quality of life is better for everyone in the county. And voting ‘yes’ for Amendment 14 will do that for us. I don’t care what anybody else says because they don’t have a plan.”
Proponents say the amendment, which will be on statewide ballots on November 8, is designed to retroactively apply the Budget Isolation Resolution (BIR) to local laws passed before this year’s election day. Robinson said up to 600 local laws could be negatively impacted if the amendment does not pass.
As it stands, the Alabama legislature requires a three-fifths supermajority for bills passed prior to budget approval. However, the legislature had previously been passing BIRs with fewer legislators who were present and voting. Perhaps most important to residents of Jefferson County is the one-cent sales tax that had been in effect was struck down in 2015 when Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Michael Graffeo found it was passed using this form of BIR voting.
Robinson characterized the amendment as “the most important piece of legislation” he’s seen in his 18 years as a legislator. He said the amendment would open up Jefferson County to $36.3 million in revenue by refinancing over half a billion dollars in construction debt.
He said the impetus for the amendment is to refinance the debt on the sales tax that was levied in 2002. “From there that portion of the funds will be refinances and from that there will probably be up to $100 million dollars,” Robinson said. “Then from the top you take off the amount to pay the debt down and the remainder is what you see on those boards.”
When asked what he thought about those in the Jefferson County Delegation who are opposed to the amendment — specifically Rep. John Rogers, who had previously characterized the move as “a corrupt conspiracy” — Robinson said he saw “zero corruption. If there is $60 million on the board and we didn’t specify where it was going to go and it was just coming to the delegation and we’re going to decide where it’s going to go, then I could see an issue coming up. But if you got it in black and white where the money goes, then there is no corruption.”
During the press conference Robinson presented posters illustrating how the money would be allocated if the amendment passes; $25 million would go toward transportation improvements; $10 million would go toward economic development; $3.6 million for the Jefferson County Community Service Fund; $18 million for Jefferson County Schools. At times, Robinson and other speakers offered few details as to exactly how they determined the figures they presented. Instead, proponents of the amendment focused on what would happen if the amendment fails.
“The corruption of anything, I think, should be focused on the other side,” Robinson said, referring to dissenting members of the delegation. He also pointed out that the one-cent sales tax legislation — HB573 — could be affected if the amendment fails, along with 59 other local bills. “Statewide there are 700 acts that are sitting waiting on the public to vote [‘yes’ on Amendment 14] so we can keep funding for police departments, for retirement, for all the things that have already been enacted and serving the communities throughout the state,” Robinson explained.
Funding for a new UAB football stadium and the Birmingham Zoo could also be affected if the amendment fails, according to Robinson.
Rep. Rodger Smitherman said that passing the amendment offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Jefferson County to be taken “to the next level.”
“We can’t look to Montgomery for our nonprofits and agencies that need money,” he said. “This funding for education: you see now the struggles we’re having, we’re not going to get money from the state to address the needs. We must take advantage of this opportunity now,” Smitherman said, adding that over 30 years the school system could see an influx of $540 million if the one-cent sales tax is refinanced and diverted into Jefferson County educational funds.
“That one-cent sales tax was used for construction purposes only. There’s about 10 or 12 years left on that to pay,” Smitherman said. “What that bill did was reallocate the one-cent sales tax and opened it up to use and extended it pass that 10 or twelve years.”
Smitherman offered this example: “It’s like you owe $100 and you’re paying $10 a year for 10 years. Now, on that $100, you’re paying $5 for 20 years and the other $5 for other means like education. That’s what this does. What will happen if it’s not extended — then at that point the cities will come in and tack on a one-cent sales tax. That’s why this is our one opportunity to do this. It will pay off the rest of construction.”
However opponents of the amendment question both the timing and the details of the proposed amendment. In a statement issued earlier this month, Rep. John Rogers said his colleagues are using “fear tactics” to rouse up support of the amendment. “After Graffeo ruled their bill was passed illegally, the Jefferson County legislators appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court but knew they had a weak case. After all, Graffeo finally called them out on what they had been doing for years — violating Act 448 — disregarding their own rules and passing bills without quorums present,” the statement reads.
Rogers also questioned the number of laws that would be impacted if the amendment fails. He believes the affected laws would number closer to two, as opposed to the 600 or 700 laws that Robinson has cited on different occasions.
“Only two bills are in question because of the statute of limitations,” Rogers said. “One is the Chilton County hospital issue — now in the courts — and the other is the grand theft attempted by Jefferson County politicians to rip off the citizen’s school funds. Amendment 14 ‘clears up’ nothing. Amendment 14 is designed to overturn Graffeo’s quorum decision, that’s all! Further, these same legislators petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court not to hear the citizens’ constitutional challenge until after November 8.”
Graffeo ruled that the 13 members who voted for the passage of the BIR and approved Act 2015-226, were insufficient to pass the bill, because they did not meet the legal standard of a quorum. Graffeo’s decision voided the effort to refinance the $600 million construction debt and turn it toward the projects Robinson cited. In essence, proponents of the bill believe Graffeo’s decision would open the door for other legislation passed during this time to be voided by the courts. Amendment 14 seeks to protect these pieces of legislation from similar lawsuits. Opponents, like Rogers, believe it is unlikely that separate lawsuits would be filed to void all the bills passed during this time period.
As an unwritten rule, county delegations typically shy away from interfering with financial matters pertaining to other counties, Robinson said. “This is just good business,” he said. “It’s a professional courtesy.”
Robinson also disagreed with Rogers’ assessment of how many laws would be affected by not passing the amendment. “No legal scholar has said anything about it only being two,” Robinson said. “All of the legal scholars that you hear are saying what? Seven hundred [laws].”
On the same day as the press conference, a judge was expected to address a lawsuit filed in Montgomery County seeking to remove the amendment from the ballot. Bob Friedman, a member of the Committee to Save Jefferson County, filed the suit. At press time, the case remained undecided.
As reported by The Birmingham News, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who was named as one of the six defendants in the lawsuit, said it would be hard to get the amendment removed since absentee voting has been taking place since September 26.
“This does no more than say ‘Legislature, you did your good job and we’re going to check that mark off and maintain our quality of life,” said Jefferson County Commissioner Jimmie Stephens. “Now, what does it mean if it doesn’t pass? It means changes in our quality of life. It means revenue streams that are not there. It means so much for so many people.”
Stephens characterized the amendment as “a vehicle we can all get in — Republicans, Democrats, everybody.”
Robinson said that waiting for the Alabama Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the Act 215-226, would not be wise, given the well publicized turmoil in the court. “Have you seen our Supreme Court?” Robinson asked. “I mean what’s going on down there? We don’t need to do that. I mean, the people will speak for the Supreme Court.”
Full disclosure: Bob Friedman distributes Weld newspapers. The newspaper is not a party to Friedman’s legal action.