(May 1-3, at al.com): Cramped and bullheaded “guidance” from Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall is keeping Mobile County, and probably others in the state, from providing desperately needed relief to small businesses devasted by the coronavirus crisis.

Marshall ought to reconsider immediately. Livelihoods hang in the balance.

At issue is a program Mobile County commissioners want to set up, in conjunction with the Mobile Chamber of Commerce, to provide a “small business relief grant program” through which companies devastated by the coronavirus shutdowns can apply for grants of up to $10,000 to help them survive. Local governments across Alabama have flooded the attorney general’s office with queries as to whether similar programs might pass muster under the state constitution.

The commonsense answer is yes, of course. County governments for decades have created partnerships with local chambers to provide grants or other financial inducements for bigwig businesses to found or relocate facilities in their counties. The only difference here is that the county money would be used not as an inducement for new, big business, but as crisis relief for already existing small businesses.

For some odd reason, state legal authorities have long said inducements are allowable, but assistance for existing businesses aren’t. When the flood of queries came into the AG’s office due to the current crisis, the AG issued a blanket “guidance” statement that reconfirmed this logically inane distinction. Analyzed more closely, the distinction appears one in which hard lines have been drawn even though the actual constitutional language provides huge amounts of “gray area” for significant interpretive leeway.

In short, if the AG wanted to help people through the crisis, it would have been easy.

Merely a slight shift in attitude and language could have pointed the way to a “yes” answer rather than obstinately emphasize the “no” side of the equation. Instead, the AG focused on the negative….

[The rest of this column concisely explains the legal issue at hand. Please read the full column at this link.]


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