Even assuming its legal argument has merit, the Morgan County Commission has approached keeping control of revenue generated from online sales taxes in exactly the wrong way.
On Tuesday, Hartselle City Schools, the Hartselle City Education Association, the Decatur Education Association and the Morgan County Education Association all filed suit against the commission over its refusal to distribute online sales taxes as required by a local law.
County commissioners say they have been advised by attorneys that the local law violates the state constitution.
The law’s sponsor, state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who introduced it at the request of the superintendents of the Hartselle, Decatur and Morgan County school systems, says it’s constitutional and cites an opinion to that effect from the Alabama Legislative Services Agency.
The law, specific to Morgan County, requires the commission to redirect all but 5% of the online sales taxes it receives to the county’s three public school systems and volunteer fire departments.
The local law took effect Tuesday with the beginning of the 2020 fiscal year and requires the commission to send 85% of the remaining funds to the three public school systems in the county, to be distributed proportionally based on enrollment. Another 1.5% of the funds are required under the local law to go to volunteer fire departments and 13.5% to Morgan County Schools. The bill’s formula divides the online sales taxes in roughly the same way brick-and-mortar sales taxes are divided.
Perhaps the law was destined to end up in the courts, but it got there in the exact opposite way it should have.
The County Commission took it upon itself to act as legal arbiter, in effect nullifying state law and daring school systems to sue.
If commissioners believe the law is unconstitutional, they should have filed a suit challenging it, while meanwhile giving the school systems and fire departments the tax revenue as required.
Also, the commission should not have waited to act until after the school systems had budgeted for fiscal 2020 under the assumption they would be getting the tax money. Commissioners knew this was coming but acted only after school systems had already planned for the coming year.
Now school systems are having to react, making cuts and delaying programs.
“The money that Sen. Orr secured for us in the local legislation was key to making sure our students have the best opportunity for success,” Hartselle Superintendent Dee Dee Jones said in a statement Wednesday. “The cuts that would be necessary due to this loss of funds would be devastating, as would us only learning about it now, after our fiscal year has started and after all of our plans for those funds are in place.”
The state’s online sales tax is meant to make up for lost tax revenue generated by sales at brick-and-mortar stores. It is not meant to be a windfall for city councils and county commissions, although most are treating it as such. Clearly a statewide fix is needed.
In the meantime, however, Morgan County has a local law, requested by its schools and adopted by the state Legislature. It is the County Commission’s responsibility to follow the law, not ignore it.
If commissioners doubt the law’s legality, they can challenge it in court, but they shouldn’t just do as they please and force others to sue the commission to make it obey the law.
Even if it turns out to be right on the legal merits of its case, the Morgan County Commission has acted irresponsibly. Students are supposed to learn about the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33 in history class, not see it reenacted by their county government.