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April 02, 2004   Email to Friend 

Legislature raises taxes, defeats accountability

Voters overwhelmingly rejected Gov. Bob Riley's billion-dollar tax package last fall, but the governor and other elected officials are pushing through many of those same tax and fee increases through the Legislature.

On Wednesday, the House Government Finance and Appropriations Committee approved a plan backed by Riley that would nearly double the cost for motor vehicle reports obtained from the Alabama Department of Public Safety.

Sponsored by Sen. Hap Myers, R-Mobile, in the Senate and Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, in the House, the bill would increase the statutory fee for obtaining a motor vehicle report (MVRs) from $5.75 to $11 – a 91 percent increase. If the increase is approved, according to past records for Alfa, it would cost Alfa policy holders about $1.33 million annually to obtain such reports.

The current fee doesn’t include additional money insurance companies pay for electronic delivery of MVRs which is listed as “administrative fees” and costs $1.50 each. A compromise version of the bill, which was rejected by the governor and the committee, included an increase of $1 per year for MVRs for the next three years with a stipulation of no further increases for five years after the third dollar is implemented. As part of the agreement, the Department of Public Safety had agreed to work with Alfa and other insurance companies to provide new services.

Sponsors of the bill predict it would generate $8.5 million in new revenue that would be earmarked to increase troopers’ salaries and to hire 100 new troopers.

The original House version of the bill passed by a voice vote during Wednesday’s House Government Finance and Appropriations Committee and now heads to the full House for consideration.

Alabama Farmers Federation Governmental Affairs Director Freddie Patterson said he and other lobbyists had agreed to the compromise version of the bill that would have reduced the increases, but the governor backed plans for the higher increases.

“I can understand the administration having a position on not earmarking the funds, but the governor has been touting his reform package as having no new taxes,” Patterson said. “A fee increase like this is actually a tax in disguise.”

“The rejection of the compromise was another attempt by Alfa to work with the governor that was flatly refused,” said Federation Executive Director Mike Kilgore.

The Senate version of the bill is assigned to the Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee, but no action has been taken on the bill.

The House Government Finance and Appropriations Committee also passed two other bills backed by Riley that, combined with the MVRs increase, are expected to raise $13 million.

Another bill passed by the committee would change the distribution of the state lodging tax and would transfer $1.7 million a year from the Bureau of Tourism and Travel to the General Fund, which helps pay for Medicaid, courts, child welfare and other state services.

The committee also passed tax and fee bills that allow the state to suspend the professional, occupational, hunting or driver’s licenses of people who fail to pay court-ordered fines for their convictions of misdemeanor or felony crimes. Supporters of the bill say it will raise $2.5 million annually. The committee also approved Riley’s bill that increases the outdoor advertising permit fees and will generate $1.4 million a year. Other bills passed by the committee on Wednesday give retroactive approval to transfers totaling $19 million that were made from 1995 through this year from the state Securities Commission to the General Fund, to block any refund attempts.

State Finance Director Drayton Nabers Jr. told The Birmingham News this week that more lobbying needs to be done before the governor and his aides try to get committee members to pass the largest of Riley’s tax plans.

Those bills include an increase in tobacco taxes, raising the tax on nursing home beds and raising fees for filing lawsuits. In earlier meetings this year, the committee already passed Riley’s bill that would raise an estimated $5.3 million a year by deducting unpaid court fines from income-tax refunds, but that bill has yet to be taken up by the full House.


Senate passes home rule legislation

SB139, a limited version of home rule sponsored by Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, passed the Senate Thursday. However, each county will vote on the measure which is not a constitutional amendment. If approved by county voters, the bill would allow the county commission limited powers that include weed abatement; litter and trash control; regulation of junkyards, public water and sewer systems; public transportation; and animal nuisance control. It does not change Alabama’s Right to Farm Law.

A county commission will not have the authority to levy or collect any tax beyond those granted by current law, nor will it have authority to execute land use planning and zoning. It will not be allowed to regulate any activity currently controlled by the Alabama Public Service Commission, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environmental Management. Commissioners will not have authority over courts or court personnel, public schools, city or municipal government, private or civil relationships and public utilities.

Commissions also will not regulate agricultural, manufacturing, industrial plants or farming operations that are now protected by existing law. A commission cannot take any action affecting pari-mutuel betting or any of its facilities.

The proposed law would allow, by a majority vote of the commission, a call for a referendum to implement this plan only in the unincorporated areas of the county or it may also, as the result of a petition signed by 10 percent of the qualified electors in the unincorporated area of the county, call for a referendum. Voters may use a similar call for referendum if they would like the plan repealed.

The policy of the Alabama Farmers Federation states that the rights and freedoms of the people of this state and the broader public interest are protected by opposing any attempt to allow the state to give up its responsibilities and powers to county or local units of government.

According to Federation Governmental Affairs Director Freddie Patterson, the specific prohibitions in this proposed legislation means that it does not confer any of the powers of the state to the county government that would be detrimental to agriculture. “After many consultations with our legal advisors and serious deliberation by the state board on March 22, the Farmers Federation is not actively supporting nor opposing this legislation,” Patterson said, “however, it could remove past arguments about the inability of local government to bury dead animals.”


BILLS IN BRIEF

Budget Reform – HB 619 and 620
Sponsored by Rep. Joe Carothers, D-Dothan, has failed to be acted on by the House Education Finance and Appropriations Committee. The bills were discussed during a public hearing on March 17 and carried over temporarily. However, the committee failed to bring up the measures for discussions when it met this week.

Ethanol Fuel Incentive – SB 10
Sponsored by Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, SB 10 would create the Alabama Qualified Fuel Ethanol Producer Incentive Fund to be administered by the Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries and provides grants to qualified fuel ethanol producers in Alabama. It is assigned to the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. AFF OPPOSES the bill as written.

COOL -HB 606
Requires grocery stores to furnish country of origin labels for fruits, vegetables and honey grown outside of the United States. The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee approved the bill Thursday. It now heads to the full House. AFF SUPPORTS.

Anhydrous Ammonia – HB 162
Sponsored by Rep. Ron Johnson, R-Sylacauga, HB 162 defines the term “anhydrous ammonia” and makes it a crime to unlawfully possess anhydrous ammonia for illegal drug purposes. This bill has a provision that protects production agriculture in relation to possession of this chemical. The bill has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate. AFF SUPPORTS.

Gleaning – HB 23 – SB 198
Sponsored by Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, and Sen. Jimmy Holley, D-Elba, the bill allows farmers to invite non-profit agencies to gather remaining agriculture crops, with limitations of civil liability, and donate them to charitable organizations. The liability risks do not exceed that of a trespasser. The House has passed the bill and it awaits action in the Senate. AFF SUPPORTS.

Volunteer Firemen – SB 185
Sponsored by Sen. Ted Little, D-Auburn, SB 185 would allow volunteer firemen to have the same powers as municipal firemen in deterring interference or hindrance in fire control or firefighting activities. It was approved by the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee and is awaiting action by the full Senate. AFF MONITORING.

Public Timber Sales – HB 33
Sponsored by Rep. Allen Layson, D-Reform, HB 33 allows timber on public lands to be sold as surplus property without bidding. It increases the minimum sale allowed without bid from $500 to $25,000. The bill passed the House and is assigned to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. AFF SUPPORTS.

Shellfish Restrictions– HB 206
Establishes penalties for the direct retail sale of shellfish treated with certain veterinary drugs. In addition to shellfish, the bill includes all wild fish and farm-raised fish. The bill was passed by the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee and awaits action by the full House. AFF SUPPORTS.

Shrimp & Seafood Checkoff - HB 267-268
Allows members of the shrimp and seafood industry to establish a checkoff program. The second proposed bill is the enabling legislation. The bill was passed by the House and is assigned to the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. AFF SUPPORTS.

Ag Department Fees – HB 370
A bill that would have increased fees for the Department of Agriculture and Industries has been sent back to the legislative fiscal office. The office will recalculate the money generated by the fee increases. Sponsored by Rep. Joe Carothers, D-Dothan, the bill is expected to be back before the House Government Finance and Appropriations Committee next week. The Federation has chosen not to support the bill. That decision was reached after thorough consideration by Federation state commodity committee chairmen and other producers throughout the state. However, the Federation will oppose the bill (HB 370) if the Legislature begins to increase fees unreasonably.

OTHER BILLS OF INTEREST
The Senate Finance and Taxation-General Fund Committee killed Riley's bills to abolish longevity pay for state employees and to clear the way for state employees and school workers to pay more for their state health insurance coverage. Currently, state employees pay nothing for their health insurance coverage and education employees pay only $2 per month. A bill changing the law so public employees could be charged more got killed by the Senate committee 10-3. The committee used the same 10-3 vote to kill legislation that would require future state employees to work 30 years, instead of 25 years, before being eligible for full retirement benefits.

The committee voted 12-1 to kill Riley's legislation to abolish the longevity pay that state employees with five or more years of service get each December.


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