By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Friday, July 17, 2015 Montgomery Circuit Judge Greg Griffin has dismissed the lawsuit by Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) and two taxpayers of Baldwin County. The trio had sued Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (R) as well as five Baldwin school officials. The Judge ruled that the taxpayer plaintiffs lacked standing to sue and did not set out a cause of action against the defendants.
The case to stop boards of education from spending public funds in campaigns for tax increase referendums was dismissed.
Zeigler said in Friday that he will study the ruling and decide next week whether to appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.
The Baldwin County School Board has sought massive property tax increases. As opposition grew to the measure, the Board spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a media campaign to tell the people that the Board needed more money to spend. Opponents charged that the school system was illegally using public money for political purposes and had violated state law.
“Improper use of state property, time, etc., for political activities
Code of Alabama 17-17-5(a):
No person in the employment of the State of Alabama, a county, a city, a local school board, or any other governmental agency, whether classified or unclassified, shall use any state, county, city, local school board, or other governmental agency funds, property, or time, for any political activities.”
Zeigler said, “We did not want taxpayer money, and we are talking about a lot of taxpayers’ money, that is supposed to run the educational system to go instead to a political campaign.”
Board attorneys maintained that the Board had done nothing wrong. AG Luther Strange was asked for an opinion and he wrote an AG’s opinion very favorable to the board.
The growing scandal from the alleged misappropriation of funds however proved toxic to the debate with 81 percent of Baldwin County voters saying in a WKRG-TV News 5/Strategy poll that they opposed using school dollars on the high priced media campaign. On March 31 the tax increases were soundly rejected by voters at the polls. In exit polling, “No” voters overwhelmingly disapproved of the decision to use the children’s money on slick political consultants and ad buys.
In the aftermath of the scandal, interim Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Robby Owen resigned to go back to his former position as a principal at an elementary school and on Wednesday Governor Robert Bentley (R) elevated 28 year old attorney Matthew Brown (R) to the State of Alabama School Board. Brown was the Chairman of the “Educate Baldwin Now” campaign which defeated the tax increase package at the polls two to one despite being outspent over 50 to one by the Baldwin County Board of Education and its powerful corporate allies.
Opponents of using taxpayer funds to purchase propaganda in elections and referendums are expected to ask legislators to strengthen Alabama campaign finance laws to prevent the controversial practice from happening again.