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Debate centers around 2015 fire fee legislation

At last Monday's monthly meeting of the Franklin County Fire and Rescue Association, extensive discussion took place about a 2015 local legislative act that allowed Franklin County residents to vote, by fire district, to impose an annual fee to benefit volunteer fire departments.

Although nine fire districts voted to implement the annual fee, the meeting didn't focus on the much-needed revenue coming in as a result of its passage. Instead, there was continued discussion about whether the legislation was supported or hindered by Sen. Larry Stutts (R-Tuscumbia).

Association president Michael Moomaw included Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow (D-Red Bay) on the agenda to discuss the legislative history of the bill, which was introduced in a special session in August 2015.

Morrow is unopposed as the Democratic candidate to face Stutts, assuming Stutts wins the Republican nomination on June 5th, in the November general election.

Morrow explained the three-step process the bill needed in both the House and Senate. After the bill cleared the House, it went to the Senate, where Stutts, as the local legislator whose district would be impacted by the bill, had to guide it through the three-step process.

Morrow said he was contacted by a reporter from the Times-Daily on August 5, 2015, and was told by the reporter that Stutts had not signed his name to the bill yet and that he “had bigger fish to fry.” (Times-Daily August 6, 2015).

Morrow contacted Moomaw and urged him to travel to Montgomery the next day (August 6) with other Franklin County volunteer fire department members to urge Stutts to support the bill.

Step two of the three-step process in the Senate came on August 7 when Stutts signed the bill as the local legislator and the bill cleared the Alabama Senate on August 10, the seventh day of the special session.

The bill was then sent to Gov. Robert Bentley, who signed it, and it was placed on the ballot and approved by Franklin County voters in nine fire districts in 2016.

The bill calls for an annual fee which is added to residents' ad valorem taxes and is specifically for funding the local fire department. The nine fire districts that moved forward with the legislation all saw voters approve the measure.

Moomaw was asked whether he felt Stutts actually opposed the bill at the time, or if he just wasn't moving forward in a timely fashion with a pending deadline.

Special sessions last no more than 10 days according to Alabama law and if the bill hadn't cleared the legislature in 2015, it would not have appeared on the ballot until 2018.

On our first talk with Sen. Stutts, I thought he was just dragging his feet. When we went to him the second time and he said he'd already signed it and it wasn't signed, that's when I thought he was opposed to it,” Moomaw said.

While he was in Montgomery, Moomaw said he thought Stutts would kill the legislation sohe contacted Franklin County Probate Judge Barry Moore to see if he could contact Stutts and ask for his support of the bill.

At a political event earlier last month in East Franklin, Stutts was asked by East Franklin Fire Chief Rodney Alexander why he 'was reluctant' to support the fire fee bill. Stutts' response appeared in the May 2 edition of the Franklin Free Press.

I don't know that I was reluctant,” Stutts responded. “I signed it out of the Senate as soon as it got through. I appreciate what volunteer fire departments do and it's not correct to say that I was reluctant. I supported it with no opposition at all.”

In an interview last week with the Free Press, Stutts acknowledged his “bigger fish to fry” quote but said he never said he was going to kill the bill, explaining that the special session was called by the governor for the specific purpose of passing a general fund budget and he thought it would be difficult to pass local legislation during a special session.

The bigger fish to fry quote was to say we had an uphill battle to pass a local bill in a special session because the governor called it for one purpose,” Stutts said. “We had to pass a budget in the special session so in a special session so there were 'bigger fish to fry' than local bills.”

Stutts said in order to bring up legislation during a special session that's not on the call of the session, a supermajority is required.

It's not like passing a regular bill in a regular session. It's easy to kill something in a special session because technically there's only one purpose for the session,” Stutts said.

Moomaw said he and two other fire association members pleaded with Stutts to support the bill during the special session so voters could decide whether to pass the annual fees in the 2016 election cycle.

Stutts said he always supported the bill. In a 2015 interview with the Franklin County Times, Stutts said he thought the citizens of Franklin County would support the annual fee.

Our volunteer fire departments are a critical part of our rural communities. If given the opportunity, I believe the vast majority of citizens will see the value in what these individuals do for us on a daily basis and vote to stabilize their funding,” Stutts said.

Stutts said he recalls doing everything he could to usher the legislation through the Senate and that he did not say the bill 'didn't belong' in a special session.

Historically, no local bills get done in special sessions. That's what I said. We were there for the purpose of passing a general fund budget because the constitution requires to to pass one. But when I got the opportunity in the special session to bring it up, I brought it up and passed it,” Stutts said.

In addition to the Franklin County fire fee legislation, Stutts co-sponsored two other pieces of legislation during the 2015 special session.

They included SB 54, which would change language relating to the Congressional district from which University of North Alabama trustees are appointed. The other was SB 44, which would prohibit the sale of tissue from an aborted fetus.

Both pieces of legislation failed to make it to the Senate floor, Morrow said.

The sale of tissue of an aborted fetus is already against federal law,” Morrow said. “What does that have to do with Alabama's general fund budget? Can anyone answer that?,” Morrow said.

Neither of the two bills he thought were more important than Franklin County fire departments passed or even reached the Senate floor,” Morrow added.




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