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Colleges use state funds to fight Riley proposal

MONTGOMERY (AP) — More than $150,000 a year in state money is being spent to fund an organization that has lobbied against Gov. Bob Riley's proposal to ban two-year colleges from hiring state legislators.

The state school board has not taken a position on Riley's proposal and is sharply divided on the issue, but a lobbyist representing an organization of the state's two-year college presidents spoke at a Senate committee hearing last week against Riley's proposed legislation to ban hiring lawmakers, The Birmingham News reported Tuesday.

The group of presidents is called the Alabama College System Presidents Association and collects money from two-year colleges. The group has declined to disclose how much money it collects and how it uses the money, but The News said system financial records show that the group receives at least $7,125 a year each from most colleges. More than $150,000 in payments to the group were identified in college financial records obtained by The News covering a period between October 2004 and September 2005.

Riley's press secretary, Tara Hutchison, said the use of state money to lobby against his proposal does "raise some concerns" for the governor. But she said Riley will "continue to push for this much needed change."

Lobbyist Bob Boothe, who is paid as the only employee of the presidents' group, told school board members in an e-mail last week that he opposed Riley's legislation because it would strip the board of the right to accept or reject a ban on hiring lawmakers.

Some state school board members said they were surprised to hear that Boothe was speaking for them and opposing legislation they support. They also questioned why college presidents are using taxpayer money to fight legislation without board approval.

"They're circumventing any power or authority that the board overseeing the two-year college system has," board member Stephanie Bell of Montgomery said. "I really have a problem with using college funds for membership in these little groups."

Boothe said he believed he had to oppose Riley's bills in committee because it would have been wrong for him to have "sat idly by and allowed authority to be snatched from our board."

Riley, who as governor serves as the school board's chairman, offered the legislation at the same time he asked the board to impose its own ban on hiring legislators.

"This is the responsibility of the state board of education and, in my opinion, the decision should remain with them," Boothe said in his e-mail to board members.

Board Vice Chairwoman Sandra Ray of Tuscaloosa said she wasn't aware that the presidents' group was lobbying against Riley's bills. But she said she's not too concerned since the board has not taken a position on Riley's proposal.

"I don't know that I can fault anybody for having an opinion," said Ray, who has expressed ed concerns about Riley's proposals.

Bell said the presidents' group is a way two-year college presidents can flex their political muscle. Bell said she knows of instances in which the presidents' group has hosted legislators on the Gulf Coast, paying for their beach-front rooms with money collected from colleges.

"It's clear to me there is a problem," Bell said. "You're dealing with public money."

The presidents formed the group many years ago, but only in recent months began the process of organizing as a nonprofit under federal Internal Revenue Service laws, Boothe said. He has been paid as a full-time employee since about 1999, but he declined to reveal his annual salary.

Tue current president of the group is Vicki Hawsey, president of Wallace State Community College in Hanceville.

Hawsey said since state school board members have not taken a formal position on the legislation, the position of the group of college presidents is not in conflict.

"The presidents would not take any position that is in conflict with the board's," Hawsey said.

Hawsey said the president's group is no different from the Alabama Association of School Boards and other groups that receive taxpayer money for their organizations.

Bell said she believes the group shouldn't use taxpayer money to promote the political interests of college presidents, who make between $150,000 and $176,000 a year.

"It's not as though they don't make enough to pay their own membership fees," Bell said.

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Information from: The Birmingham News

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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