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2 rural development programs for Alabama

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — For state officials, creating rural development programs is like eating potato chips. They can't stop with just one.

The Republican governor has created a rural development program headed by a former state senator who appeared in a re-election ad for him.

And the Democrat-controlled Legislature has voted to create a program overseen by a Democratic official at the agriculture department.

Is it duplication?

"It is," said former state Sen. Gerald Dial, director of Gov. Bob Riley's Alabama Rural Action Commission.

But Dial said he has talked with state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, and they intend to work together to try to boost rural areas.

Sparks said Dial has been invited to participate in the department's new Center for Rural Alabama so each program will know what the other is doing.

"I don't think we can do too much for rural Alabama," Sparks said.

In 2005 and 2006, Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, and House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, pushed legislation to create a freestanding Center for Rural Alabama. But the legislation always died under opposition from Republicans and some Democrats, including Dial, who saw it as usurping the governor's control over the state's economic development efforts.

In last year's legislative elections, Barron helped the candidate who defeated Dial in the Democratic primary. Then Dial cut a campaign commercial for Riley that portrayed his Democratic opponent, Lucy Baxley, as being "too liberal" for Democrats like Dial.

After winning re-election, Riley created the Alabama Rural Action Commission in February and appointed Dial to the $84,500-a-year job as director.

Dial has been creating panels to focus on eight areas of the state, much like Riley did in his first term with the Black Belt Action Commission. The panels include present and former congressmen, mayors and other community leaders.

"They are doing an excellent job and they've created more excitement than I had anticipated," Riley said.

Senate budget committee Chairman Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, views Riley's program differently than Sparks' Center for Rural Alabama.

"Ron Sparks is committed to a working center for rural development that will extend beyond this term and benefit Alabama for many years," Bedford said. "The governor has decided to reward a political crony for cutting campaign commercials for him and there is no permanence to it."

The Legislature last week approved an extra $150,000 appropriation for the Department of Agriculture and Industries to start the Center for Rural Alabama this summer. The Legislature also allocated $150,000 in the fiscal 2008 General Fund budget that will allow the center to continue into the next fiscal year.

Riley has not yet said whether he will sign the budget or suggest changes to the Legislature when it returns Thursday for its final meeting day.

Sparks said the department's new center is an outgrowth of what Barron and Hammett tried to do in past years, and it will have a couple of employees who will put a special emphasis on helping agriculture and agricultural-related businesses in rural areas.

"Rural Alabama is agriculture. Our number one industry is agriculture," Sparks said.

Dial's commissions are looking at health care, education, industrial development and other issues.

Sparks said rural Alabama has not enjoyed the economic success of urban and suburban areas in Alabama, and there is plenty of work for both rural development programs.

"There is nothing wrong with putting as much resources as you can into helping rural Alabama," he said.

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

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