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April 01, 2005   Email to Friend 

Committee passes phone deregulation bill with questionable voice vote

Rep. Oliver Robinson, D-Birmingham, has come under fire following his call on a questionable voice vote on the controversial telephone deregulation bill. Robinson serves as chairman of the House State Government Committee and, during a committee meeting Wednesday, he called for a voice vote on SB 114 following a public hearing.

It appeared that the committee might not approve the bill because, following a favorable motion by Rep. Terry Spicer, D-Elba, several seconds passed before Rep. Jody Letson, D-Hillsboro, finally made a second. That’s when the questionable voice vote occurred.

That vote sends SB 114, sponsored by Sen. Hap Myers, R-Mobile, and commonly called the BellSouth bill, to the full House for consideration.

Several members of the committee, including Rep. Jay Love, R-Montgomery, said the vote sounded close.

The Mobile Register quoted Love as saying "I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. When shenanigans like that go on, it's no wonder people don't trust us.”

A lobbyist for one communications company opposed to the bill said it was “ramrodded” through the committee by Robinson. Many legislators were interested in slowing down this bill to take a closer look and allow time to work out differences. The Farmers Federation is very concerned about the impact of the bill. Rural Alabamians could see an increase in the cost of basic phone service and may have trouble obtaining basic phone service if this bill passes in the current form.

Federation Director of Governmental Affairs Freddie Patterson said an amendment drafted on behalf of the Federation was passed by the committee. It was the only amendment accepted by the committee, and will allow small, rural phone companies to offer service in current BellSouth customer areas if they choose to be deregulated.

If SB 114 wins approval on the House floor, it must go back to the Senate for concurrence on the House changes.

Members of the Alabama Public Service Commission have opposed the bill, saying customers will end up paying more for poorer service. However, BellSouth and some other phone companies have said they need freedom from regulations imposed by the PSC to compete with wireless, Internet and cable companies that operate outside the PSC’s jurisdiction.

Governor may veto proposed education budget

Gov. Bob Riley and other Republican leaders criticized the education budget passed by the Senate Education Budget Committee Wednesday, calling it a “recipe for disaster for our schools.” The governor has indicated he may veto the budget, however, legislators could override the veto.

The budget includes a 6 percent pay raise for nearly 100,000 education employees and would cost an estimated $159 million a year. The budget for the 2005-06 fiscal year would spend a record $5.164 billion from the state Education Trust Fund, an increase of $565.7 million, up 12.3 percent from this year. Riley and others who opposed the budget said the proposal depends largely on one-time money that will not be available next year. That could force spending cuts in 2006-07. This is one of the primary reasons why the Alabama Farmers Federation has joined with the governor in opposition.

The Federation supports the governor’s proposal for an across-the-board raise of 4 percent for teachers and other education employees, an amount that could be sustained in next year’s budget. But the Alabama Education Association has said it would fight anything less than a 6 percent raise.

The committee voted 12-2 for its version of the budget and approved a bill that gives pension increases of 4 percent next year and 2 percent in 2006-07 to retired education employees. Both bills go to the full Senate for debate.

The Birmingham News quoted the director of the Legislative Fiscal Office as telling committee members that if their proposed budget for next year was adopted, the trust fund would have to grow by 6.02 percent the following year just to maintain level funding. That includes projected increases for retirement and health insurance. Projections are that tax collections and other revenue for the trust fund will grow by 4.15 percent next year. Typical growth for the last 15 years has been about 4.7 percent annually.

Sen. Bradley Byrne, R-Fairhope, told lawmakers they would have to slash education spending by more than $100 million in 2006-07, perhaps a lot more, if the panel's spending plan became law and tax collections grow at typical rates. This should concern legislators in an election year when they may have to choose between budget cuts or a tax increase to continue to fund the pay raise. The Federation endorsed Gov. Riley's Education Budget and General Fund Budget because they met the organization’s criteria for fiscal responsibility while respecting the demonstrated thoughts and feelings of the taxpayers of Alabama.

Federation opposes changes to current use

A bill sponsored by Rep. Jack Williams, R-Hoover, would change portions of the state’s current use laws regarding development of residential property. HB 663 would move development property from commercial classification (a rate of 20 percent assessment) to residential classification (10 percent assessment) when it is subdivided, platted and recorded.

The Federation opposes the measure because it denies landowners, who may be developing a portion of their property, the opportunity to continue to claim current use on areas of land not yet developed.

Home builders and developers favor the bill even though they will no longer be able to claim current use on undeveloped land. By changing the classification, they would save 10 percent on their tax bill. Home buyers would no longer be required to pay the 20 percent assessed ratio (a commercial rate) for their portion of the first tax year after purchasing a home. The bill would reduce that amount to 10 percent as well.

The bill also requires disclosure of the full purchase price for property and is favored by tax appraisers. The bill is in the Education, Finance and Appropriations Committee.

Bills in Brief

Seasonal Cotton Module Tag & Weight Exemptions - HB 520 and SB 332
SB 332, sponsored by Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, and HB 520, sponsored by Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre, would provide that the annual license tax and registration of a vehicle designed and especially constructed to transport raw cotton from harvest to a cotton gin could be a maximum of $250. Both bills are currently awaiting action in their houses of origin. The bill will reduce the amount of money going into the road and bridge fund. This bill would clarify the exemption for axle and gross weight requirements. After opposition from Public Safety the exemption for width, height, or length was removed. This bill was needed because they are currently paying road taxes for 12 months and only traveling on the road for three of those months. Because of the way the truck is manufactured with the axles located toward the front of the truck it also makes it almost impossible to comply with weight laws. AFF Supports

Fish Weighing Bill - SB 324 and HB 392
HB 392 is sponsored by Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, and SB 324 is sponsored by Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro. Both bills are awaiting action before the Senate, but if the House version is approved, it will go to the governor for his signature. This bill would require draining the water in weighing baskets containing farm-raised catfish before weighing and require the weighing device to conform to specific legal requirements. This bill would require farm-raised catfish to be weighed with a weighing device capable of electronically printing a ticket, which provides an exact duplicate of the weight indicated and would allow a deduction for any foreign substances in the weighing basket. AFF Supports

Queen Bee as the State Insect - HB 376
HB 376, sponsored by Rep. Sue Schmitz, D-Toney, is stalled in the Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee chaired by Sen. Myron Penn, D-Union Springs. This bill would designate the queen honey bee as the Official State Insect of Alabama. Currently, the monarch butterfly is designated as the Official State Insect. AFF Supports

Casualty Deduct for Timber and Cattle - SB 390 and HB 670
SB 390 sponsored by Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, was approved by the Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee. The companion bill in the House is HB 670, sponsored by Yusuf Salaam, D-Selma. This bill would allow timber and cattle producers income tax deductions for the entire amount of loss from the decline in value of these commodities suffered during Presidential declared disasters. In an effort to help farmers because of Hurricane Ivan, the effective date would be September 16, 2004. Under current law, the allowable deduction for casualty losses is first reduced by the amount reimbursed by insurance and then reduced by 10 percent of the taxpayer's adjusted gross income. This bill will reduce income tax collections to the Education Trust Fund. AFF Supports

The Disclosure Bill - HB 75
HB 75, sponsored by Rep. Randy Hinshaw, D-Meridianville, has stalled the Senate for several legislative days as conservative legislators continue to filibuster. This is an effort by gambling interests led by a few legislators to silence groups that are shedding the light of day of what is going on in Montgomery. The Alabama Farmers Federation has been working with many other associations and political organizations to oppose HB 75. The interested parties are concerned if this bill passes it would have negative consequences in efforts by grassroots groups to educate the public about issues before the State Legislature and how the legislators voted. HB 75 would require any organization that tries to educate the people of Alabama about a candidate’s voting record or position on issues or that gives an opinion on pending legislation, to disclose names of all of the organization’s contributors.

Freddie Patterson said, “This bill is an attack on the Christian Coalition. It narrowly targets certain groups and is clearly intended to discourage their participation in the legislative process.” If HB 75 passes, groups like the Christian Coalition would no longer be able to distribute voter guides without disclosing all their contributors which would be impossible for groups that have large memberships like the Farmers Federation. The Farmers Federation believes that this bill infringes on the exercise of constitutional protections related to the right to free speech. However, the law would have to be challenged through the court system to be ruled unconstitutional.

Lax Requirements to Sell Term Life Insurance - SB 321
SB 321, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, was indefinitely postponed in the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee on Wednesday. There is an identical bill, SB 281, sponsored by Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery. The House version, HB 388, sponsored by Rep. William Thigpen, D-Fayette, is out of committee and awaiting action by the full House. The bill would create a special license for those producers seeking to sell only term life insurance and would provide for their pre-licensing education and written examination requirements. Under existing law, life insurance agents must complete certain pre-licensing education requirements and pass a written examination to be licensed as an insurance producer. AFF Monitoring

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