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April 07, 2006   Email to Friend 

House Passes Eminent Domain Bill With Amendments

The House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment limiting the use of eminent domain Thursday with two amendments that could jeopardize its final adoption.

SB 446 will now go back to the Senate. The amendments added in the full House will likely draw new opposition to the bill, which almost died in the Senate last week due to a filibuster by urban senators.

Federation Governmental Affairs Director Freddie Patterson said the amendments were added as a tactic to kill the bill and that SB 446, as passed by the Senate, fully protected private property rights from condemnation for private development.

“The addition of these amendments will provide ammunition on the final day of the session for those groups intent on preventing the public from voting on a constitutional amendment limiting eminent domain,” Patterson said.

SB 446, as passed by the full Senate and House County and Municipal Government Committee, preserves the power of eminent domain for legitimate public uses such as roads and utilities.

The legislation, however, would prohibit expanding the use of eminent domain for a perceived, indirect public benefit, such as increasing tax revenues. The bill includes a 15-year buy-back clause that would allow the owner to reclaim condemned property if it is not used for the intended purpose or the use is changed. Local governments also would be required to notify property owners about applicable ordinances regarding dilapidated or dangerous properties before exercising eminent domain to condemn them for blight.

The Senate version of the constitutional amendment also provides protection for landowners who maintain their property in an otherwise blighted area. One amendment adopted by the House would provide that any property taken by eminent domain would be valued at its highest and best use.

In addition, the condemning authority would be required to pay the landowner all accounting and appraisal fees as well as the estimated state and federal capital gains taxes. The condemning authority also would be required to buy out any remaining leases on the property.

A second amendment would allow the Alabama Port Authority to use eminent domain for private uses within the City of Mobile and its police jurisdiction.

On Tuesday, the House County and Municipal Government Committee held the third public hearing on eminent domain. Patterson testified on behalf of the Federation as did Jeannie Bragg Harvey, a farmer from Madison County. Others who testified in support of the Senate version of SB 446 were Greg Masood with the Alabama Association of REALTORS and Rosemary Elebash of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

Patterson said SB 446 (as passed by the Senate) does five things: (1) protects private property from being condemned for private development; (2) prohibits the indiscriminate use of blight by local governments for urban renewal projects; (3) grandfathers in the use of eminent domain for such purposes as hospitals, roads and schools; (4) provides a 15-year buy-back option for the original landowner if the property is not used for the stated public use; and (5) it is a constitutional amendment that can not be changed by simple legislative action or by local amendments.

Harvey pleaded with the committee to restrict the use of eminent domain for private development. A portion of her family’s land was condemned to build a public road. Now, the City of Huntsville wants to take property on either side of that road for industrial development.

Masood with the REALTORS told the committee that voters want a constitutional amendment limiting eminent domain, and that the Alabama Legislature needs to act now. Last year’s Supreme Court decision in the case of Kelo v. New London, Conn., expanded the scope of eminent domain but gave states the option to pass more restrictive laws. Elebash testified on behalf of NFIB members in Northport whose property is being taken for redevelopment. She said SB 446, as passed by the Senate, stands the best chance of protecting small business owners across the state.

Testifying against the bill was an unusual alliance of local governments, state agencies and misinformed citizen groups. Some wanted to expand eminent domain to include private development while others wanted to use the bill to address other forms of government “takings.” Both sides asked the committee to kill the bill.

Those seeking to expand the use of eminent domain included: Sonny Brasfield of the Alabama Association of County Commissioners; Perry Roquemore of the League of Municipalities; Carol Clarke with the City of Birmingham; Jim Stanley, attorney for the City of Birmingham; Beth Marietta Lyons with the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce; Bryan Thames with State Port Authority; and Joe Vallely with the City of Huntsville.

Ironically, these governmental authorities were joined in opposition to the bill by groups who claim they want an eminent domain constitutional amendment. However, these groups opposed SB 446, knowing any amendments could kill it.

Ken Freeman with the Alliance for Citizens Rights and Margaret Brown with Eagle Forum opposed SB 446 while promoting a bill similar to one that had already died in the Senate.

Members of the committee offered several amendments to SB 446 despite being advised that any amendments would jeopardize passage of a proposed constitutional amendment this session. Offering amendments were: Rep. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery; Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville; Rep. Bobby Humphryes, R-Pleasant Grove; and Linda Coleman, D-Birmingham.

After much discussion, the House County and Municipal Government Committee passed SB 446 with NO amendments by a 8-6 vote. Unfortunately, two amendments were reintroduced by Rep. Mac Gipson, R-Prattville, on the House floor and were adopted, including one on behalf of Brewbaker.

If the Senate doesn’t concur with these amendments, the constitutional amendment could be sent to a conference committee consisting of three House members and three senators. The conference report would then be sent back to both houses for consideration on April 17, the final legislative day of the session.


Senate Confirms Three Appointments to ADEM Commission

The Senate confirmed three of Gov. Bob Riley’s nominations to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management Commission Tuesday. Sam Wainwright, a retired engineer from Dothan with six years experience on the commission, was reappointed to a second six-year term by a vote of 22-10.

Dr. John Lester, a veterinarian from Enterprise, was reappointed to a third six-year term on the commission by a vote of 20-10.

Anita Archie, director of the Montgomery Riverfront Development Foundation, was confirmed to fill an at-large position on the commission by a vote of 31-0. She will replace former Conservation Commissioner Riley Boykin Smith.

The Senate failed to act on the appointment of Dr. Laurel Gardner, a veterinarian with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Auburn. Riley had tapped her to replace environmentalist Pat Byington of Birmingham. Byington, whose term is set to expire Sept. 30, has been lobbying for reappointment to the commission. Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, blocked the confirmation of Gardner to give environmental activists more time to lobby the governor on behalf of Byington.

If the Senate does not reject an appointment for the biologist/ecologist position on the commission before Oct. 1, the governor’s appointment will stand.

Earlier in the session, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Dr. Kathleen Felker, a radiologist from Huntsville, to the seven-member ADEM Commission.


Legislature Passes Bill Defining ALDOT Requirements For Farm Trucks

A bill supported by the Alabama Farmers Federation passed the House (95-0) and the Senate (34-0) during the session that would redefine the gross weight of vehicles for registration purposes – namely pickup trucks used for personal or agricultural uses so long as they are not used for commercial purposes. Rep. Joe Carothers, D-Dothan, sponsored the bill.

HB 222 provides that the license and registration on any pickup truck used for personal or agricultural use would be based on gross vehicle weight, or the empty weight of the truck, instead of usage.

Recently the Alabama Department of Transportation mailed thousands of letters to farmers and others who had farm-rate tags on vehicles informing them of the department's intent to enforce the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Guidelines beginning July 1, 2006.

Those guidelines, adopted in 1998, require posting the farm or business name on the side of the truck with a DOT number. Federation officials believe state law can regulate use of intrastate roadways, however, the bill may be challenged by state officials seeking to enforce federal regulations.

A request has been made of the governor's office to place an executive amendment on the bill that would more clearly define state authority regarding intrastate weight restrictions.


Legislature Approves Executive Amendment To Animal ID Bill

The Alabama Legislature this week approved an executive amendment to a bill that will allow the State Department of Agriculture and Industries to implement an animal identification system that keeps producer information confidential.

Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks and Gov. Bob Riley agreed to the executive amendment, which makes it clear that participation in the animal identification program is currently “voluntary” in Alabama and would remain voluntary until federal law or regulation requires mandatory participation.

“I became concerned about clarifying this part of the bill after my office received many calls from concerned farmers who had been confused by the misinformation put out prior to the bill being passed,” said Sparks. “I hope that adding this language will ensure that everyone can easily tell that this bill does not implement a mandatory animal identification program in Alabama and that the program would not be mandatory until it is required by federal regulations. It only means that the information collected in the program will remain confidential to protect the privacy of those who participate.”

Riley, who raises cattle on his farm in Ashland, said he supports animal identification as a protection for farmers and consumers. The technology is available “to make sure we never have the spread of something that could be devastating to so many farmers out there,” he told reporters at the capitol.

HB 254, sponsored by Rep. Blaine Galliher, R-Gadsden, provides that information collected for the purpose of animal identification would be confidential with certain exceptions. This bill would authorize the commissioner to keep information confidential regarding the existence or operation of any agricultural interest or other business regulated by the department.

Sparks said the department plans to work with large and small producers alike to help them comply with USDA requirements. While the National Animal ID System will not be mandatory until 2009, Sparks said he hopes producers will voluntarily register their livestock premises, once the governor signs the bill guaranteeing their information will be kept confidential by the State Department of Agriculture.

The amended bill now goes back to the governor for his signature.


OTHER BILLS OF INTEREST

A constitutional amendment backed by the governor and the attorney general that would restrict electronic gambling died this week when time ran out for the Legislature to consider them and hundreds of other bills. Among them were bills banning most abortions, ending annual reappraisals of property for tax purposes, placing a moratorium on use of the death penalty in Alabama and punishing illegal aliens working in Alabama.

Several legislators proposed bills and constitutional amendments to end annual property reappraisals and go back to reappraising property every four years. The Federation supported removing the practice of annual reappraisals but education and county government lobbyists were successful in delaying action of those bills.

Legislators approved a bill that would restart legislators' community service grants, which were struck down by the Alabama Supreme Court. However, Gov. Bob Riley has pledged to veto the bill.

Legislators approved a bill that will delay the primary runoff election from June 27 to July 18 in Alabama. The bill is designed to allow military personnel serving overseas enough time to cast absentee ballots. The bill is awaiting approval of the governor who is expected to sign it.

A bill that increases the threshold for which a family of four starts paying income taxes unanimously passed both the House and the Senate this week. The bill now goes to the governor who has said he would sign it into law. The $60 million-tax cut starts in January and raises the threshold where a family of four starts paying state income taxes from $4,600 annually to $12,500.

The Senate voted 22-0 to approve the $1.65 billion General Fund budget passed by the House of Representatives 102-1 Tuesday night. The budget includes funding for non-education agencies, including Medicaid, state troopers and prisons. It now goes to the governor.


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