Merrell, Gambril spar

Published 12:03 am Thursday, October 14, 2010

During Wednesday’s LBWCC forum, a proposed Constitutional amendment on the Nov. 2 ballot proved to be a point of contention between the two local candidates for district attorney

Both candidates – Incumbent Democrat Greg Gambril (D) and his opponent, Walt Merrell (R) – were each given five minutes to address the assembly.

During Merrell’s turn at the podium, he touched on the proposed local amendment No. 1, which, if passed, “would authorize the Legislature, by local or general act, to fix, regulate and alter the costs and charges of the court in Covington County.”

The amendment may be confusing to voters, considering that a statewide increase in all court costs approved the legislature in 2009 was implemented this summer.

Merrell said the proposed amendment, if passed, would raise taxes.

“The majority of that money collected (from the recent increase) goes to fund the DA’s office,” he said. “If this amendment passes, all the money will then go to the DAs office. I tell you vote, ‘No.’ ”

At the point Merrell described the proposed local amendment as a “tax,” Gambril interjected with, “No, it’s not.”

Asked later why he considers additional fees taxes, Merrell said, “Anything that the government does to raise revenue by collecting it from the people to be used for the purpose of funding government actions is a tax.”

Gambril said after the forum that calling the fee a tax is “an outright lie.”

But Gambril agreed with Merrell that voters should oppose the amendment, even though it’s on the ballot because Gambril asked members of the local legislative delegation for the local bill. Before the legislators agreed to introduce the bill, Gambril went before the county commission in July of 2008 seeking their support for the amendment.

Last week, Gambril explained the proposed Constitutional amendment as a local “back-up plan” in case state legislation approving the court cost increase had not passed.

“The state law renders the constitutional amendment moot,” he said. “Were it to pass, the local law that the amendment enables would be repealed by the legislature in the spring. Because of legislative action two years ago before the statewide bill passed, the local law was passed, and the enabling amendment got cemented onto this ballot.

“It could not be removed once the state law – which is identical – passed,” he said. “The state law is not impacted by this vote whatsoever.”

The fee increases already implemented statewide provided for “solicitor’s fee,” or a $16 increase in court costs for cases in city courts and a $21 increase for circuit and district court cases, to be assessed on all juvenile, traffic, criminal and quasi-criminal cases in juvenile, district, circuit and municipal courts.

Circuit clerk’s offices receive $3 of the increase from the statewide bill, with the remainder going to the district attorney’s office. That money goes to provide legal representation to indigent defendants.

Merrell said if he is elected, he will refund the fees municipal courts currently are collecting and paying to the DA’s office.

“The fee applies to every court system in the state, and in Covington County, the DA’s office has nothing to do with any municipal court,” Merrell said. “I have checked with the Administrative Office of Courts, and it is legal for the DA to refund that money.”