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May 20, 2005   Email to Friend 

Session ends without a general fund budget, special session on tap

The Alabama Legislature concluded its 2005 regular session Monday night in the usual annual “mad rush” to midnight. However, legislators could return for a special session as early as next week to consider the General Fund Budget which never was brought up for a vote in the Senate. The session will have to be called before Oct. 1, the start of a new budget year.

The House passed both budgets during the session and House leaders, including House Ways and Means General Fund Committee Chairman John Knight, D-Montgomery, publicly criticized the Senate for failing to take up the General Fund Budget.

Battle lines were drawn early in the session between Gov. Bob Riley and Alabama Education Association Executive Secretary Paul Hubbert regrading the Education Budget. The dispute centered around a proposed teacher pay raise and the moving of certain education-related functions from the General Fund Budget to the Education Budget.

While the governor proposed a 4 percent pay raise, Hubbert insisted on a 6 percent increase. The Legislative Fiscal Office reported that the higher pay raise would likely send the state’s Education Budget into proration next year, but despite those warnings, Hubbert’s proposal was passed by both the House and Senate. If proration occurs, state law prohibits salaries from being cut.

Gov. Riley exercised his veto power over the Education Budget, but the Legislature overrode his veto. When that final vote was taken, many members of the Legislature cheered and applauded the governor’s defeat.

The Alabama Farmers Federation supported the governor’s budgets because his proposed 4 percent increase, combined with significant increases in retirement and health care benefits, translated into a 7 percent increase for education workers. He also proposed a balanced General Fund Budget that included no new tax increases.

A projected $250 million shortfall in the 2006 General Fund Budget is likely to bring up numerous plans for tax increases during the special session. Sen. Jeff Enfinger, D-Huntsville, already is calling for tax increases to cover the projected shortfall.

Among only a handful of bills that were passed during the session was legislation that will allow county governments - if approved by county voters in unincorporated areas - to implement “limited home rule.” The bill allows any county choosing a more restricted version of home rule to call for a referendum allowing voters to determine those increased limitations, without legislative approval.

“The budget struggles caused the failure of numerous important bills that were introduced during the session,” said Federation Governmental Affairs Director Freddie Patterson.

Several bills backed by the Federation died on the final day, including the Catfish Weighing Bill which would have regulated how catfish are weighed prior to processing; Non-Payment of Ag Goods which would have established penalties for buyers who fail to pay for farm products and the Queen Honey Bee Bill which would have designated the queen honey bee as Alabama’s official insect. Federation leaders will ask the governor to include the Catfish Weighing Bill and the Non-Payment of Ag Goods Bill in the special session.

This was the fifth consecutive year the Family Farm Preservation Act was introduced. The bill, which would have protected farmers from nuisance lawsuits, was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee where it was never considered. That committee is dominated by trial lawyers, who generally oppose legislation limiting lawsuit abuse.

“We will come back with a Family Farm Preservation Act again next year, because pressures from nuisance lawsuits shouldn’t force farmers out of business,” Patterson said. “However, the big battle during the upcoming special session will be about money. We will oppose revenue increases until the budget process is reformed. Alabama voters already have told legislators they don’t favor new taxes, however, last year many of those same legislators approved the largest tax increase in the state’s history. Now, one year later, some are asking for more taxes again. Until the budget process is reformed, taxpayers can never be assured that their money is spent wisely.”


BILLS IN BRIEF

BILLS THAT PASSED

Limited Home Rule - SB 129
Sponsored by Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe; and Rep. Jack Venable, D-Tallassee, SB 129 authorizes several counties in Alabama to exercise additional powers if not prohibited or provided for by general law or the state constitution.

Current Use Notification - SB 42
Sponsored by Sen. Phil Poole, D-Tuscaloosa, SB 42 requires the tax assessor or revenue commissioner, as the case may be, to timely notify the new owner of current use property to make application for current use valuation.

Same Sex Marriage Prohibited - SB 109
Sponsored by Sen. Hinton Mitchem, D-Albertville, SB 109 prohibits same sex marriages pending approval of the constitutional amendment during the next statewide election.

Bell South Deregulation - SB 114
Sponsored by Sen. Hap Myers, R-Mobile, and Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, SB 114 effectively deregulates all phone companies in the state.

Eminent Domain - SB 18
Sponsored by Sen. Curt Lee, R-Jasper, and Rep. Steve Hurst, D-Munford, SB 18 will increase the time when the probate court is required to conduct a hearing in an eminent domain proceeding from 30 days to 45 days after a complaint has been filed. The Federation supported the legislation which allows landowners more time to prepare for such hearings.

BILLS THAT DID NOT PASS

Fish Weighing Bill - SB 324 & HB 392
HB 392 sponsored by Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, had the chance to become law on the final day of the session, but the Senate failed to consider it. The Senate version was SB 324 sponsored by Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro. He tried to get the House version of his bill on the Senate floor for its final approval up until midnight. The bill would have regulated how catfish are weighed prior to processing. The Federation’s State Catfish Committee is disappointed the bill did not pass in the 2005 session, but some good was realized from the effort because several processors already have implemented the requirements in an effort to be in compliance with the proposed law.

Queen Honey Bee Official State Insect HB 376
Rep. Sue Schmitz, D-Toney, sponsored the bill that would have designated the queen honey bee as the Official State Insect of Alabama. Currently, the monarch butterfly is designated as the Official State Insect. The bill passed the House and was waiting for final approval on the last night of the session where it was one vote away of being sent to the governor for his signature. The Federation’s State Bee & Honey Committee likely will remove this item from its legislative agenda for future sessions. Rep Sue Schmitz should be commended for the relentless energy and effort she placed on this legislation.

Non-payment for Ag Goods - SB 147 and HB 442
HB 442 sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Oden, R-Eva, passed the House this session and was amended by the Senate Agriculture Committee and placed on the calendar for final consideration on the last day of the session. Because there were changes in the bill, it would have had to go back to the House if it had been approved by the Senate. The companion bill, SB 147, was sponsored by Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, in the Senate. The bill would have established penalties for buyers who failed to pay for farm products.

Strengthen Criminal Trespass Law - HB 550
HB 550, sponsored by Rep. Joe Carothers, D-Dothan, would have made much needed changes to the current trespass laws in Alabama. HB 550 was received in the Senate and was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham. Sen. Smitherman refused to place this bill on his committee agenda just like the Family Farm Preservation Act. HB 550 would have provided civil immunity for landowners against trespassers, with some limitations.

Family Farm Preservation - SB 227
SB 227, sponsored by Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, failed again this session. The bill would have provided that a farm operated by an owner or principal operator may not be found to be a public or private nuisance or a violation of county or municipal ordinances or resolutions unless certain conditions are met. The bill also would have authorized the owner of the farm to recover legal fees in the event the owner of the farm prevails in any legal action. Opposition from trial lawyers and several environmental groups caused the bill to fail again this year. The bill was never considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee this session. However, Federation leaders say the legislation will continue to be at the forefront of the organization's agenda and will be back next year.

Legacy and ADEM Tag Fund - HB 332
HB 332, sponsored by Rep. Betty Carol Graham, D-Alexander City, was unsuccessful this session. This bill would have diverted the funds for the Legacy affinity tag from flowing through ADEM and would have allowed the receipts go directly to Legacy. The companion bill in the Senate was sponsored by Sen. Gerald Dial, D-Lineville, and did not pass. The Federation supports more funding for ADEM, but also supports Legacy and the work it has done. Since this issue relates to the General Fund Budget, it is expected to re-surface during the special session.

Minimum 10 Mill Tax - HB 136
HB 136 failed to be considered by the Senate the final day this session and was sponsored by Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre. HB 136 called for a constitutional amendment to be voted on in a statewide referendum to require all county and city school systems to have a minimum of 10 mills of property tax. The House passed the bill earlier in the session and it was pushed by several school superintendents the final day. Currently, some 30 school systems do not have a minimum of 10 mills in property taxes because the State Foundation Program only requires the equivalent of 10 mills. One of the major concerns was that it would have gone into affect in all systems regardless if a system voted against it. During the 2004 legislative session the Alabama Farmers Federation and county Federations, working with state and local boards of education, reached an agreement that was acceptable to our organization. When this issue came up, our county organizations met with the local superintendents and agreed not to work in opposition to the bill this session but continued to monitor it.

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. This bill would have clarified the exemption for axle and gross weight requirements.

ATV Registration - HB 386
HB 386, sponsored by Rep. Ron Johnson, R-Sylacauga, would have required a certificate of title from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for all off-road vehicles.

Center for Rural Alabama - SB 366
Sponsored by Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, SB 366 would have created the Center for Rural Alabama, to help rural communities.

Prior Zoning of Property to be Annexed - SB 80
Sponsored by Sen. Hap Myers, R-Mobile, SB 80 would have authorized municipalities to pre-zone territory proposed for annexation into the municipal corporate limits.

Changes to Current Use Classification - HB 663
Sponsored by Rep. Jack Williams, R-Hoover, HB 663 would have changed portions of the state's current use laws regarding development of residential property by moving development property from commercial classification (a rate of 20 percent assessment) to residential classification (10 percent assessment) when it is subdivided, platted and recorded.

Constitutional Convention - SB 198
Sponsored by Sen. Ted Little, D-Auburn, SB 198 would have called for a constitutional convention to write a new state constitution.

Campaign Disclosure Bill - HB 75
Sponsored by Rep. Randy Hinshaw, D-Meridianville, HB 75 would have required 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.

Reallocation of Forever Wild Funds - SB 255
Sponsored by Sen. Gerald Dial, D- Lineville, SB 255 would have re-appropriated one third of the funding for the state's Forever Wild land-acquisition program. The bill would have reassigned $5 million, with $2 million allocated for volunteer firemen, $2 million for the State Soil and Water Conservation Committee and $1 million to ADEM.

Other Bills That Did Not Pass

• Wildlife Area Feeding Bill - HB 702
• Supplemental Wildlife Feeding - SB 244
• Solid Waste Tipping Fee - HB 263, SB 231
• ADEM Commissioner Qualifications Expanded - SB 222, HB 321
• State Income Tax Changed to Mirror Federal Laws - SB 390



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