PICTURED: State Rep. Steve McMillan reviews legislative accomplishments and priorities at a forum hosted by the Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce last week.
Baldwin County House members are disputing comments State Sen. Chris Elliott made to Lagniappe last week about a piece of local legislation passed in May. As reported, the primary objective of Senate Bill 367 was to provide an additional source of funding for the Baldwin County District Attorney’s office.
That was achieved by incorporating elements of a House bill Elliott said had been filed too late by State Rep. Steve McMillan. Last week, McMillan said any insinuation he filed his bill behind schedule was false, along with Elliott’s statements regarding negotiations about travel reimbursement and his characterization of a Baldwin County Legislative Delegation discretionary account as “a big, giant slush fund.”
To eliminate that account and provide funding for prosecutors, SB 367 removed a portion of recording fees previously awarded to the delegation and instead gave the proceeds directly to the DA’s office. A representative from the DA’s office said they estimated it would be worth $64,000 per year, but there was also a provision to make the act retroactive. Essentially, the DA or Baldwin County Commission can drain the balance of the account, or about $1.2 million today, Elliott said.
But McMillan said he worked with other House members to get that language inserted in SB 367 after its merger with his House bill was approved by the Legislative Services Agency (LSA). Neither Elliott nor time constraints had anything to do with it, he said.
“We wanted to combine the two sources of revenue and put it all in one bill so it would be easier to refer to, so everybody could read one piece of legislation and get the big picture of everything,” McMillan said. “I honestly didn’t think it could be done because it was two different subject matters and you can’t do that in most legislation … but surprisingly when I [asked] LSA, they confirmed it wouldn’t be a problem because they were both from the same revenue and they were both going to public services … I don’t want [Elliott], through innuendo, claiming credit for a bunch of stuff. He does that enough already.”
In the previous article and again after it was published, Elliott said his goal was to “dismantle” the delegation’s fund, claiming it had previously been used on questionable expenses including $50,000 for a painting by Fairhope artist Dean Mosher as part of a state-sponsored bicentennial art show and $276.04 McMillan reimbursed himself for hotel expenses incurred by then-House Speaker Mac McCutcheon during a trip to Mobile and Baldwin counties in 2013.
Both Elliott and McMillan have since clarified the delegation actually spent $25,000 on the painting as part of a 50 percent match by the state tourism department, and McMillan’s reimbursement was accompanied by a note claiming McCutcheon’s trip was cleared by the state ethics commission. McMillan also said the McCutcheon expense was a good investment because with his role as chair of the rules committee and later Speaker of the House, it helped local legislators get ahead of transportation planning and funding issues.
But Elliott said his primary problem with the account was that expenses were approved by the delegation in “closed-door meetings” and in the case of the Mosher painting, without any agreement or contract.
“It’s a fund with a whole bunch of discretionary money in it,” he said. “To me that is what defines a slush fund. And what we’ve done with this bill is codified where the money goes on a recurring basis and gotten rid of the balance of the fund and the discretionary spending that went along with it, so we are just as transparent as we can be to the public.”
McMillan defended the delegation’s use of the account over the years, arguing it “was not a slush fund for pet projects” as Elliott said, but “something we used to benefit the entire county. We didn’t make an appropriation out of that … on anything but the DA’s office, that artwork or economic development, and most of it was economic development and I just resented the daylights out of him implying were using it for something other than the wellbeing of the citizens of Baldwin County.”
McMillan said just since 2016, the delegation awarded at least $400,000 from the account to the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance and another $120,000 to the District Attorney’s office. The expenditure for the painting was negotiated by former State Rep. Randy Davis, he said, who used it to both bolster tourism and promote the state’s bicentennial.
Elliott said regardless of the delegation’s previous use of the fund, the bill adds a layer of transparency by essentially eliminating it.
“[The delegation] is not a governing body. This is just a group of elected officials that have allocated themselves over the years millions of dollars they are then redistributing outside of a public meeting,” he said. “I don’t want any part of that, which is why the bill does what it does … removing the allocation from the capital fund and reallocating what is in there already.”
Meanwhile, McMillan also took issue with Elliott’s recollection of how another portion of the bill evolved to increase the annual travel reimbursement the county’s two Senate members are entitled to, from $2,000 to $7,500. Elliott said he intends to travel more than previous legislators due to his promotion of economic development activities and he arrived at the $7,500 cap based on his average travel expenses as a county commissioner. But McMillan said Elliott initially sought an unlimited travel budget and only conceded to the $7,500 cap after House members refused to budge in the waning days of the legislative session.
Further, McMillan said it was the House delegation, not Elliott, which added a provision to align the delegation’s travel expense reporting requirements with those of the County Commission.
“He didn’t want any travel cap at all. He said the $7,500 (cap) was his own projection … that’s b.s.,” he said. “He wanted 100 percent reimbursement on his travel in and out of his district. When we would not go along with his idea with taking the cap off, he said he wasn’t going to pass any of our local bills until we removed that cap. And of course that didn’t happen and it ain’t going to.”
Reached separately for his perspective, Rep. Joe Faust confirmed McMillan’s account.
“I didn’t hear Elliott say that, but I was told by a good source,” he said, adding the source was not McMillan. Lagniappe called that source, who confirmed the account but declined to go on the record.
“I don’t want to add fuel to the fire, but for the past 16 years, with [former State Sens.] Bradley Byrne and Trip Pittman, we might not have hugged each other’s necks and said we loved each other, but we always got things done and we knew how to compromise,” Faust said. “We don’t work for any one group, we work for the people of this county and state and I think [Elliott] needs to realize that.”
Elliott said he had almost no contact with Faust during the session and the claim about delaying any House legislation while his travel cap was increased was “patently false,” adding “any holdup was certainly not over that. This bill is much bigger than one small change in delegation travel funding — that’s preposterous — that may have been what [they] thought it was, but that’s not at all what it was.”
Last week, as he was driving back from an Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program (ATRIP) committee meeting in Montgomery, Elliott explained how he would be reimbursed for that trip, as well as how he intends to use the delegation money for additional travel.
“ATRIP is a state committee and I’ll bill that travel to the state,” he said. “But if it’s something overtly beneficial to Baldwin County … there is the Baldwin County Legislative Delegation’s fund and I think that’s something that is appropriately placed there. Whether that’s the [Paris Air Show] … and … I may end up in [Washington D.C.] later this month to make a final push for the INFRA [Infrastructure for Rebuilding America] Grant, but those things are directly impactful for Baldwin County and, again, the legislative delegation has set up a fund specifically for that and it’s been there for a while. And if none of my colleagues have ever specifically used it to go do anything … that just makes us different in how we get the job done.”
Still, McMillan remains at odds. “I’ve never seen so much innuendo and implication,” he said. “And it was so false. There was very little truth to anything he said. All of that stuff he’s claiming credit for was taken care of well before he was involved and nothing was ever done with that account that wasn’t in the best interest of Baldwin County.”
According to the state comptroller’s office, Elliott has been reimbursed $9,113.29 for travel from the state so far in fiscal year 2019. State Sen. Greg Albritton has been reimbursed $9,080.59; Rep. McMillan, $8,883.53; Rep. Alan Baker has been reimbursed $13,800.74 for in-state travel and $478.16 for out-of-state travel; Rep. Harry Shiver, $8,289.75; Rep. Faust, $6,662.18; and Rep. Matt Simpson, $9,066.61.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).