State Sen. Chris Elliott this week defended a bill he co-sponsored that, along with reallocating funding traditionally awarded to the Baldwin County legislative delegation, also awarded him $7,500 per year in travel expenses.
Speaking with others familiar with Senate Bill 367, Lagniappe learned there was some residual animosity about how it was introduced, amended and eventually approved in late May, just before the conclusion of the legislative session.
Historically, $200,000 of proceeds from Baldwin County’s lease tax has been awarded annually to the local legislative delegation for the operation of the Baldwin County Legislative Office. From that allocation, both House and Senate members were eligible for as much as $2,000 per year for travel reimbursement, subject to periodic audits by the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts.
Senate Bill 367 maintained that level of funding for House members, while adding a provision that each House travel reimbursement be approved by a majority vote of the House delegation. But the bill increased the travel reimbursement to $7,500 for the county’s two Senate members, Chris Elliott and Greg Albritton, with no provision for approval.
Elliott said the new policy is more restrictive than the previous version because it aligns legislative travel with the same conditions governing the Baldwin County Commission.
“The intention of the change was to clarify, for delegation members, the procedure for [travel],” Elliott said. “The Baldwin County Commission has specific policies for elected officials as to how to be reimbursed for travel and there wasn’t really any policy for delegation members.”
Elliott, a former county commissioner, said commissioners must document their expenses to be eligible for reimbursement, but the legislative delegation was not held to the same standard.
“Before there wasn’t any policy on it and now it matches exactly what the County Commission has to do,” he said.
The bill’s primary objective was to bolster the budget of the District Attorney’s (DA) office with additional court costs, but Elliott said a separate bill to that affect was filed too late by State Rep. Steve McMillan. So, the DA funding was achieved by reallocating a portion of the legislative delegation’s proceeds from recording fees.
He said the local delegation rarely tapped that fund, which over the years accrued in an account with a balance of around $1 million.
“It was a big giant slush fund that needed to go away,” he said.
“What I want to do is put the money into the hands of the County Commission, so the County Commission can make determinations, in an open meeting, where everybody can look at how that money is being divvied up,” he said. “It’s not some delegation member’s job to do that in a closed-door meeting. Our job is to allocate money in Montgomery through the legislative process. Our job is not to allocate ourselves money to then reallocate later. And what was happening was the the previous delegations were doing just that.
“They wanted to have their own little fund to give to their own pet projects and I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
Asked for an example of a pet project, Elliott said last year the delegation spent $50,000 from the fund on a painting of the Fort Mims Massacre by Fairhope artist Dean Mosher. Reached afterward for rebuttal, Mosher said that money also funded an art show as part of the state’s ongoing bicentennial celebration, and the show was one of the most successful and well attended in the history of the Eastern Shore Art Center. Additional money for the show and nine murals created by Mosher was provided by the state tourism department and the Alabama Community Service Grant Program.
State Rep. Steve McMillan spoke favorably about the results of the bill, but said in his 37 years in the legislature he has asked for travel reimbursement only a single time — for a meeting of the Southern Regional Education Board in Little Rock, Arkansas. Further, he could only immediately recall four times during his career other local legislators have requested reimbursement for travel from the delegation.
Separately, an examination into the timeline of SB-367 compared to that of other local legislation indicates no local House bill moved forward in the Senate until SB-367 was approved, but McMillan would not confirm whether Elliott used the proposed travel expenditure to strongarm other legislators.
“There were some controversial bills heldover and there was negotiation on this bill and a couple others, but we finally got that all worked out the last week of the session and I wouldn’t have voted for it if I didn’t support it,” McMillan said.
Elliott said there was some pushback from his colleagues, but “if there was any angst, and they probably said it, it’s that [the delegation doesn’t] like having their fund go away. And that was my purpose, to make that fund go away because I don’t think it was appropriate.”
Elliott said as a proponent of economic development, he intends to travel more than legislators have typically done in the past.
“For folks that are active and engaged in a lot of public policy issues, [$2,000 is] probably not enough,” he said, noting that each Baldwin County commissioner has a travel budget of $15,000 to $20,000 each year.
“You’ve got elected officials that are out and about and proactively going places and trying to make economic development projects happen, that are trying to make sure we have some continuity between the relationships … those are important things,” he said, adding that he arrived at the $7,500 figure based on his own projections.
“I went back and historically looked at what are some of the things I’m doing to advocate — going to D.C. to talk about funding for [transportation] … going to an airshow or something like that — making sure we continue to keep those relationships up. And that’s not something you’re able to do with [$2,000],” he said.
At a legislative update Tuesday morning hosted by the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce, State Sen. Greg Albritton said he’s never asked for reimbursement for state travel from the Baldwin County delegation.
“If it’s state-oriented, the state pays it, if it’s campaign-related, the campaign pays it,” he said. “Most of the Baldwin County delegation are representatives of Baldwin County alone, but sometimes what the state does is not in the best interest of Baldwin County, so [Elliott] felt there needed to be a local source to be able to handle and deal with those matters.”
He said any discord among the delegation while negotiating the bill is just a normal consequence of governing.
“We are all buddies, friends, cohorts, experienced and mature men, but we also argue a lot,” Albritton said. “We have different views and there is a lot of shifting sands but the discussion is part of that.”
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