A bipartisan group of local legislators is looking to add a 5-percent tax on liquor sales in Mobile County to fund a District Attorney’s office that has claimed to be underfunded for years.
Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich said she approached Mobile County legislators about pushing the new tax, which is modeled similar laws in two other Alabama counties.
Short of staff and funding, Rich said her office is in “dire straits.”“District Attorneys’ offices across the state have been cut significantly over the last 10 years. Specifically, my state funding has been cut 57 percent,” Rich told Lagniappe. “With the funding and budget cuts we’ve had, it’s taking longer to get cases to trial and to get resolutions.”
In actual dollars, Rich says that 57 percent brought her state funding down from $1.6 million in 2007 to just under $900,000 last year. She added those decreases in state funding have resulted in 22 assistant district attorneys carrying a caseload meant for at least 28.
In recent years, Rich has been vocal about her funding from the Mobile County Commission, which still contributes around $1.5 million to her office annually. In 2012, after negotiations to increase funding proved fruitless, Rich filed suit against the Commission claiming it failed to adequately fund the work her department does.
Between the two parties, the lawsuit has cost taxpayers close to $500,000 and has been awaiting a final ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court for close to two years. Regardless of the outcome, Rich says the additional tax on liquor sales could generate roughly $712,000 for her office in the meantime.
Those funds would come from the 5-percent tax, which would apply to wholesale and retail liquor sales through the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Rich said the tax would not apply to sales of beer or wine.
While it that doesn’t appear to apply to liquor purchased at independently-owned stores or restaurants, the tax would be assessed when those retailers purchase spirits from the ABC Board — which distributes all liquor sold in the state of Alabama.
Rep. J.W. Williams introduced the bill, but fellow Republican David Sessions and Democrats Barbara Drummond and Adeline Clarke have also agreed to co-sponsor the legislation, which is currently known as House Bill 75.
Williams acknowledged any tax increase would be a tough sell, but told Lagniappe he felt finding the funding for local prosecutors was something the entire county would benefit from.
“I think they’ve been really underfunded, and no one else is wanting to give up anything from the county on up,” Williams said. “We had a recent case where the defense spent up to $19,000 on key witness, but we didn’t have the money to hire the experts we needed.”
Williams said that was particularly concerning because, in some cases, the state pays for both the prosecution and the defense through court-appointed indigent defense lawyers.
According to the FY 2016 budget, Alabama appropriated more than $56 million to indigent defense through the Fair Trial Tax last year.
While anyone accused of a crime has the right to a court-appointed attorney, Williams said prosecutors are not guaranteed funding, and if the bill passes, the new tax would help “level the playing field.”
Rich said 40 percent of the criminal cases her office prosecuted in 2015 were handled by indigent defense attorneys, and those attorneys billed the state for more than $3.6 million — roughly ten times the $356,000 her office used to prosecute the same cases.
Lagniappe reached out to the Alabama Department of Finance to verify those figures but redirected to the office of Gov. Robert Bentley. According to those records, the Fair Trial Tax Fund Expenditures in FY2015 for Mobile County totaled $3,900,574.15.
The year-to-date total for this most recent year is $2,357,667.49.
“That’s glaring,” Rich said. “They also get a separate line item for expert fees, but we have no mechanism to request the state for additional funds for experts witnesses. I have to come up with that money somewhere, which means I have to cut other services.”
While funding for state prosecutors varies from county to county, other areas have incorporated a similar tax on liquor sales for the same purpose. Last year, Brian McVeigh, District Attorney for Calhoun and Cleburne counties, worked to have a similar bill passed.
Asked about its effect, McVeigh said the extra revenue “put us back above water.”
“This made sense to us because 94 percent of our domestic violence cases were alcohol or drug related and most of them were alcohol,” McVeigh said. “We didn’t become rich by this passing, but it did offset some of the losses we’ve had in others areas and allowed us to fund victim services officers and prosecutors we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to fund.”
McVeigh said his office modeled their bill on a similar tax that’s been assessed on liquor sales in Marshall County for the last 27 years.
Updated on Feb. 5 at 11:50 a.m. to include Fair Trial Tax Fund Expenditure figures received from Gov. Robert Bentley’s press office.