Federation Gears Up For Legislative Session
When the Alabama Legislature convenes Feb. 1, one of its top priorities will be filling an estimated $350 million to $400 million shortfall in the state’s general fund budget, including an estimated $160 million needed to keep Medicaid solvent.Alabama Farmers Federation Governmental Affairs Director Freddie Patterson said the projected shortfall is likely to provide momentum for tax increases that lawmakers had been reluctant to consider following voters’ overwhelming defeat of Amendment 1 in 2003.”There is strong bipartisan support for funding Medicaid, and state agencies already are saying they can’t tolerate further spending cuts. As a result, legislators will be looking for ways to increase revenue that don’t require a vote of the people,” Patterson said. “Although some accountability measures have been implemented, the Legislature has not addressed the need to base budgets on actual revenues. Until that happens, the Federation will continue to oppose any effort to raise taxes.”One way some lawmakers have tried to raise revenue in the past has been through the elimination of sales tax exclusions on agricultural input items. Patterson said the Federation will work to protect those exemptions during this legislative session. In addition, the Federation will work with lawmakers to make sure fast-growing agricultural sectors like the greenhouse, nursery and sod industry are given the same tax incentives granted to other businesses that enhance economic development.In the budgeting process, Patterson said the Federation will support funding of permitting fees for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as well as funding for the Alabama Agricultural Land Grant Alliance (AALGA).The Federation will continue to support legislation that protects family farms from frivolous lawsuits and the adverse effects of land use planning and zoning. The Federation Board of Directors, however, has agreed to support a limited home rule bill that was introduced during the last legislative session by Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, and Rep. Jack Venable, D-Tallassee.This bill would allow counties to dispose of waste and manage local water and sewer systems. It would not give local governments any additional authority to raise taxes or implement zoning and land use planning.Patterson said the Barron-Venable plan is a reasonable home rule bill that allows counties to do things they should have the authority to do, but it leaves those powers normally held by the state in the hands of state government. Issues like health care and environmental management, he added, are better regulated by one state agency than by 67 different county agencies.”The Federation’s current policy says the state should not relinquish its power to county governments. The Barron-Venable bill, as it was written in 2004, is consistent with that policy,” said Patterson. “If the bill is changed in any way, we will vigorously oppose it.”The Federation also will monitor any effort to rewrite the state’s constitution. Current Federation policy supports a recompilation of the constitution to remove obsolete language and says any revision should be done on an article-by-article basis. Meanwhile, the Federation will work with business and industry leaders to clarify the qualifications for individuals who serve on the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) Commission. In addition, Federation Agricultural Legislation Director Paul Pinyan said the organization will monitor a proposed “tipping” fee, which could provide the financially strapped department with additional revenue by charging waste management companies a fee for using landfills.”Our goal is to ensure that Alabama has a well-balanced, scientifically based environmental management program that will keep control of the state’s environmental policy in Alabama rather than having it taken over by the Environmental Protection Agency,” Pinyan said.The Federation also will work with lawmakers during this session to update regulations governing the weights and widths of farm equipment that can be transported on roads and highways. Pinyan noted that, as farm equipment has gotten larger, some multi-row machines no longer fit the guidelines set out in state law. The Federation will be working to craft legislation that will protect public safety while giving farmers the freedom to move their equipment from one field to another.Other agricultural bills supported by the Federation include legislation to standardize Alabama’s catfish weighing practices with those of other states. The Federation also will be monitoring proposals to register all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). Earlier this year, the Federation’s county leadership expressed an interest in reducing the theft of ATVs and the incidence of trespassing by riders.Bills dealing with water use, dam safety and the production of alternative fuels are expected to be introduced during this legislative session. Patterson said the Federation will work to ensure agriculture is given the second-highest priority in any water use allocation (behind drinking water). Legislation promoting the development of biodiesel or ethanol production in Alabama will be evaluated to make sure it provides incentives for farmers. Additionally, Patterson said the Federation will continue to support bills that promote Alabama-grown products and country-of-origin labeling on food.