Alabama Legislature sends education, general fund budgets to governor
The Alabama Legislature this week gave final approval to the state’s education and general fund budgets.
The House of Representatives voted 67-31 Tuesday night to send an education budget to Gov. Robert Bentley that increases spending by 4.5 percent to $5.59 billion. After working all night, the Senate approved the budget 19-6 shortly before 8 a.m.
Included in the education budget is $2.4 million for the Alabama State Department of Education’s Career Tech Initiative. The current year’s budget requires that at least 50 percent of career tech funds be used for agriscience purposes. The budget for fiscal year 2012 requires at least $900,000 be used for agriscience with the remainder going to other career tech programs.
Funding for the Rural Medical Scholars Program at the University of Alabama was unchanged from last year’s budget at $440,909. The Alabama Agricultural Land Grant Alliance (AALGA) received $5.25 million, a 12 percent decrease from last year’s budget. Total appropriations for the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station increased slightly to $31.1 million, including $100,000 for fire ant research and eradication. The budgeted amount for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System also was up slightly to $32.5 million.
Meanwhile, the Senate approved the $1.77 billion general fund budget about 4:45 a.m. Wednesday by a 20-3 vote, and the House followed with a 62-35 vote around noon.
Although the budget increases spending 11.3 percent over this year’s prorated level, it includes a one-time, $263 million windfall from the oil and gas trust fund based on a ruling by the attorney general’s office that past transfers from the fund were miscalculated. The general fund budget increases funding for Medicaid and protects spending for state prisons and mental health, but includes deep cuts for some state agencies.
The budget restored $246,250 for the Agricultural Center Board, which oversees Garrett Coliseum in Montgomery, as well as $182,225 for the state climatologist.
The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries received $12.1 million, an 8 percent reduction from last year’s budget but 42 percent more than the governor had proposed.
Also included in the budget was $150,173 for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to offset registration fees for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
The Farmers’ Market Authority, which was not funded in the governor’s budget, received an allocation of $421,320, about 5 percent less than last year. The Legislature also increased funding for the Alabama Forestry Commission, when compared to the governor’s proposal. The final budget includes $10.7 million for the agency, about 7 percent less than last year.
The general fund budget also includes $119,308 in state-matching funds to secure cost-share assistance for farmers through the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP). The program provides assistance for the expansion of on-farm irrigation.
Landowner Protection Act wins final passage
Alabama farmers and property owners who lease land for hunting and fishing will soon have greater protection from liability lawsuits thanks to new legislation that passed the Alabama Legislature Tuesday.
The Landowners Protection Act (SB 84), sponsored by Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, states that a landowner who leases property for hunting or fishing shall not be liable for damages to a person using the property unless the landowner has actual knowledge of a dangerous condition that is not obvious and fails to inform the lessee about the danger. The legislation does not protect landowners who would intentionally or willfully cause injury to a person using their land under a lease arrangement.
The new protections would go into effect on the first day of the third month following passage and approval by the governor. Gov. Bentley is expected to sign the bill into law. The companion bill was sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville.
Forever Wild likely to face vote of the people in 2012
The House Economic Development and Tourism Committee approved a bill Wednesday that would allow voters to decide whether to reauthorize Forever Wild for another 20 years.
SB 369, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, passed the full Senate earlier in the month after senators filibustered an attempt to reauthorize the land-buying program without a vote of the people.
Forever Wild uses 10 percent of the investment income from the state’s oil and gas trust fund to preserve land for recreation. Since 1992, the program has spent about $160 million to preserve more than 220,000 acres. The Federation supports Forever Wild but believes it is wise to study the program and develop goals and priorities for its future, especially with the state in dire financial straits.
The measure now goes to the full House for final consideration. If approved, the Forever Wild reauthorization would be on the Nov. 6, 2012, general election ballot.
Bentley signs tenure reform giving school systems more flexibility
Gov. Robert Bentley signed legislation Thursday that streamlines the dismissal process under Alabama’s teacher tenure law and gives local school systems more flexibility in terminating employees.
The Students First Act of 2011, was sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, and Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes. It provides for retired judges to hear appeals of dismissed teachers and limits the employees’ pay during the appeals process to 75 days. Under the old law, appeals were heard by federal arbitrators, and the employees were paid throughout the appeal.
The new law eliminates the appeals process for teacher layoffs triggered by a school system’s financial troubles. It also gives school systems the authority to terminate employees at any time for reasons such as incompetency, insubordination or immorality.
Supporters of the tenure reform bill included State Superintendent of Education Dr. Joe Morton. Alabama Farmers Federation policy supports amending tenure laws so that incompetent teachers can be removed without extensive legal restrictions.
Immigration reform goes to conference committee
A conference committee was appointed this week to reconcile differences in the House and Senate versions of sweeping immigration reform legislation that passed earlier in the session.
HB 56, sponsored by Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, would create specific crimes related to illegal aliens and would require verification of the legal status by employers. The House-passed version requires employers to use the federal E-verify program. However, the Senate changed the bill to allow other forms of identification, as provided for in SB 256, sponsored by Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale. The conference committee is expected to meet next week to work out the differences in the two versions.
Conference committee members are: Sen. Beason; Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Red Hill; Sen. Rusty Glover, R-Semmes; Rep. Hammon; Rep. Charles Newton, D-Greenville, and Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Albertville.
The Alabama Farmers Federation is encouraging the conferees to include safe-harbor provisions in the final bill that would protect employers who, in good faith, comply with immigration laws. “Employers who are given fraudulent documents should not be held responsible for hiring those employees,” said Federation Assistant Director of Governmental and Agricultural Programs Brian Hardin.
In addition, the Federation supports exempting employees with H2A guest worker Visas from the E-verify requirement. The bill should include an exemption for small businesses from E-verify requirements, Hardin said. A similar law recently passed in Georgia excludes businesses with 10 or fewer employees.
Bills in Brief
Agritourism Signage, SB 153 and HB 188, sponsored by Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Red Hill, and Rep. Elwyn Thomas, R-Oneonta, would give the Department of Agriculture and Industries authority to approve roadside signage for agritourism operations. HB 188 passed the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee and is expected to be up for a final vote in the Senate next week. AFF supports.
Fertilizer Preemption, SB 123 and HB 198, sponsored by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, and Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, would affirm the state’s authority to regulate fertilizer and prohibit local governments from regulating the registration, packaging, labeling, sale, storage, distribution or use of fertilizer. SB 123 awaits a final vote in the House, and HB 198 awaits final action in the Senate. AFF supports.
Honeybee Protection, SB 433 AND HB 552, sponsored by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, and Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, would protect Alabama honeybee colonies from pests and disease by increasing fines for illegally transporting honeybees across state lines. SB 433 passed the Senate Wednesday and will be considered by the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee Tuesday, where the companion bill received a favorable report last month. AFF supports.
Water Authorities SB 485, sponsored by Sen. Paul Bussman, R-Cullman, would authorize the creation of water-supply reservoir watershed management authorities to protect, provide and sustain the water quality of local water supply reservoirs and associated watersheds. The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. AFF monitoring.
Weatherproofing Deduction, SB 395, sponsored by Sen. Ben Brooks, R-Mobile, would provide a state income tax deduction of up to $3,000 for Alabama homeowners who retrofit or upgrade their homes to resist damages associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, windstorms or rising floodwaters. The bill originally applied to homes in coastal counties and was amended this week to cover the entire state. The Senate passed the amended bill Wednesday by a 32-0 vote. AFF monitoring.
Timber Harvest, SB 376 AND HB 487, sponsored by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, and Rep. Mark Tuggle, R-Alexander City, would allow for county commissions to adopt a uniform notice requirement for timber harvesters prior to operations. The intent is to prevent more counties from passing varying requirements across the state. SB 376 awaits action in the full Senate. HB 487 has been assigned to the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee. AFF supports.
Alabama Wineries, HB 418, sponsored by Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, would allow small wineries to distribute up to 24,000 gallons a year to retailers and produce wine for other wineries. The bill passed the House Economic Development and Tourism on Tuesday. AFF monitoring.
Article-by-Article (Banking), SB 28 AND HB 20, sponsored by Sen. Ben Brooks, R-Mobile, and Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, would revise the banking section of Alabama’s constitution without the need for a costly convention. SB 28 passed the Senate Wednesday and was assigned to the House Financial Services Committee. HB 20 awaits final action in the Senate. AFF supports.