May 19, 2017
By Jeff Helms
Farmers and forest owners fared well in the 2017 regular session of the Alabama Legislature, which was marked by a leadership change in the governor’s office. The Legislature adjourned for the session Friday evening.
Alabama Farmers Federation priorities included passage of bills enhancing irrigation tax credits and the Farm-to-School program, as well as funding for the Concentrated Animal Feed Operation (CAFO) program and other agriculture and forestry activities.
Brian Hardin, director of the Federation’s Governmental and Agricultural Programs Department, said the successful session is a testament to the organization’s grassroots nature.
“Federation policy begins at the county level, and it takes teamwork to promote and defend that policy,” Hardin said. “County leaders, commodity divisions and field staff all support our efforts at the State House. I especially want to thank legislative program directors David Cole and Matthew Durdin for their tireless work representing Federation members.”
The irrigation incentives law increases the maximum tax credit for installing irrigation equipment or converting existing systems from fuel to electricity. Previous law, which went into effect in 2012, limited the irrigation credit to 20 percent of total cost not to exceed $10,000 in tax liability. The new language allows farmers to claim the greater of the current provision or 10 percent of accrued cost, not to exceed $50,000 in credit.
Durdin thanked sponsors Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Rep. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, for their leadership in securing passage.
“We appreciate Senator Orr’s continued support for expanding irrigation in Alabama,” Durdin said. “He and Rep. Chesteen made passage of this legislation a priority in the closing days of the session when other bills were competing for spots on crowded legislative calendars.”
David Cole said Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatom, championed the Farm-to-School legislation and other bills important to rural Alabama.
“Rep. Beech’s bill will allow more farmers and lunchrooms to participate in Farm-to-School by aligning Alabama’s program with federal law,” Cole said. “We appreciate her loyal support of Alabama farmers and rural families.”
Beech sponsored legislation simplifying the timber severance tax to prevent double taxation of materials from a single log. It also allows the tax to be calculated based on tonnage rather than board feet.
Durdin and Cole said Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, and Rep. David Sessions, R-Grand Bay, provided strong leadership as chairs of their respective agriculture and forestry committees.
Whatley and Sessions sponsored successful legislation making technical changes to laws related to livestock markets and clarifying the authority of the Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries over livestock markets in the state.
Meanwhile, agriculture and forestry programs received favorable funding in the Education Trust Fund (ETF) and General Fund (GF) budgets.
The GF budget fully funded the CAFO program in the Alabama Department of Environmental Management at $575,000, up $175,000 from last year. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program received $81,403 to promote the efficient use of irrigation.
Funding for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) increased $350,000 compared to the current fiscal year. The budget also moved the Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) program from the Soil and Water Conservation Committee to the ADAI.
The Alabama Forestry Commission (AFC) received $7.5 million, up $800,000. The appropriation included an additional $99,100 for rural and community fire protection. The Legislature also approved a $550,000 supplemental appropriation this year for the AFC from the Emergency Forest Fire Fund. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette, and Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, is aimed at offsetting costs related to fall wildfires.
The $6.4 billion ETF budget provided $5 million for Career and Technical Education Operations and Maintenance and $4.1 million for the Career Tech Initiative.
The budget included $200,000 more for RC&D, bringing the total to $1.78 million. The Alabama Agricultural Land Grant Alliance, Soil and Water Conservation Committee, Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, Alabama Cooperative Extension System and rural medical programs received appropriations identical to Fiscal Year 2017.
Other successful legislation included a measure allowing counties to create authorities for developing and operating agricultural centers. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, and Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence.
Rep. Isaac Whorton, R-Valley, secured passage of a bill clarifying the tax exemption for water districts. Previous law did not specifically state the exemption applies to sales and use tax.
A voluntary all-terrain vehicle registration bill by Rep. Will Ainsworth, R-Guntersville, won final passage. It is intended to generate funds for education and training on ATV safety and the development and maintenance of ATV trails. Registration also aids law enforcement in the recovery of stolen vehicles.
Meanwhile, a bill to improve Alabama’s crumbling infrastructure stalled after passing a House of Representatives committee.
HB 487, by Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, would have allowed the state to issue up to $2.4 billion in bonds for road and bridge improvements. The bonds would be repaid by an increase in the state gasoline and diesel fuel tax and a new tag fee on alternative-fuel vehicles.
Federation policy supports “increased and equitable funding for improving farm-to-market roads and bridges.” Cole said Poole worked to craft a bill that addresses critical infrastructure needs while ensuring accountability and a balanced distribution of funds.
"We appreciate Rep. Poole’s hard work and dedication to improving our state’s infrastructure, which would not only make our farm-to-market roads safer and more reliable, but would also make our state more competitive when recruiting industry," Cole said.
Funding for roads and bridges is likely to resurface next year or in a special session, particularly if President Donald Trump is successful in passing a federal infrastructure plan.
One of the final actions of the Legislature was passage of redistricting plans. In January, a federal court ordered the Legislature to redraw the districts for three Senate seats and nine House seats before the 2018 elections. The three-judge panel said the Legislature illegally used race as a factor in drawing the districts in 2012.
The plan changes 25 of the Alabama’s 35 Senate districts and 60 of the state’s 105 House districts. Final passage came after almost 50 hours of the bills being read aloud by computer. Opponents requested the reading to slow passage.
Click here to view the proposed redistricting maps.