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May 11, 2007   Email to Friend 

House passes education, general fund budgets

The Alabama House of Representatives this week passed the State General Fund budget, which now heads to the Senate where Democrats and Republicans remain locked in a debate over rules.

The General Fund, which the House approved Wednesday by a vote of 88-14, includes funding for agricultural projects supported by the Alabama Farmers Federation. Appropriations within the Department of Agriculture and Industries' budget include: $200,000 for fire ant eradication research at Auburn University; $550,000 to secure federal matching funds for the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program; $150,000 for the Center for Rural Alabama; $150,000 for the Center for Alternative Fuels; and $500,000 for collaborative research efforts on alternative fuels with Auburn University.

The House-passed General Fund budget also includes stable funding of $350,000 for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to offset concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) fees. Meanwhile, the operating budget for the State Farmers Market Authority (FMA) was decreased despite new money being set aside for community farmers markets. Total funding for the FMA would be $1.5 million, up almost $1 million from last year, but most of that is pass-through money that would be spent on markets in House members' districts.

The House version of the budget would increase funding for the Alabama Forestry Commission by almost $2 million from last year, which is $1.35 million more than Gov. Bob Riley recommended. The commission had requested $5 million to replace one-time federal funding that was provided for hurricane disaster relief. In addition, funding for the Soil and Water Conservation Committee was increased $750,000 from last year.

The $1.8 billion General Fund budget includes a 3.5-percent pay raise for state employees as well as a one-time bonus in December that would be about $360 for a worker with 30 years service.

Last week, the House approved a record $6.7 billion Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget, which also awaits action in the Senate. The budget would give teachers and other education employees a 7-percent pay raise and retirees a one-time bonus. The House voted 101-0 to give education employees the pay hike and then later approved the education budget on a 99-4 vote. The budget is about $450 million more than was spent on education last year. The pay raise would be the third increase in a row for teachers, who received a 5-percent hike during the current fiscal year and a 6-percent increase last year.

The ETF budget includes $5 million for the Career Tech Initiative to enhance vocational programs at Alabama high schools. The funding request grew out of work by Team Ag Ed, which includes representatives from business, industry, agriculture and education. The group was organized by the Federation in cooperation with State School Superintendent Dr. Joe Morton to address a rapid decline in the number of agriscience programs in Alabama schools. The Career Tech Initiative would provide funding for agriscience, family consumer science and other vocational programs.

The House-passed education budget includes $1.6 million for rural medicine, including $100,000 for the Auburn Rural Health Program, $100,000 for the Tuskegee Area Rural Health Program, $540,000 for the Rural Medical Scholars Program at the University of Alabama and $125,000 for the Rural Health Program at the University of Alabama Huntsville.

The Alabama Agricultural Land Grant Alliance Program (AALGA) was funded at $7.85 million, an increase of $1.35 million from last year and $350,000 more than the governor recommended. Earmarked within that appropriation is $5 million to secure matching federal funds, $650,000 for the fruit and vegetable marketing initiative and $200,000 for the Youth Partnership Program.

The ETF budget also includes another $200,000 for fire ant education and research. Funding for the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station was up $6.3 million to $41 million, and funding for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System was increased almost $7 million to $44.5 million.

Rules debate creates bottleneck in Senate

With the regular session of the Alabama Legislature two-thirds complete, few bills have passed the Senate because of a dispute between the 18 Democrats who make up the majority and 17 members of a minority caucus that includes Republicans and a few Democrats.

This week, the dispute continued as the minority group debated routine bills to prevent other business from coming before the Senate. The Republicans contend that rules adopted by the majority give Democrats too much power. Meanwhile, the Democratic majority has refused to adjourn, hoping to catch the Republicans with too few senators to maintain the delaying tactics.

On Wednesday, the minority senators filibustered until midnight two routine bills that must be voted on before state budgets or other legislation can be considered. The Democratic majority eventually called a recess until 5 a.m. Thursday, when the filibustering continued. Another short recess Thursday was followed by more debating until a failed mid-afternoon quorum call resulted in an adjournment until 10 a.m. Friday.

At press time, the Senate remained deadlocked. The stalemate could be broken if the two sides reach an agreement on the rules or if the Democratic majority can catch the Republicans with too few senators in the chamber to continue debate. If that happens, the Democrats are likely to quickly dispense with the two routine bills and move on to the state budgets and other legislation.

When the deadlock ends, it will still be another two to three legislative days before Federation-supported measures like the intrastate DOT exemption could be considered. That's because each bill must receive a first reading in the Senate, be assigned to a Senate committee, be passed by that committee and then be reported to the full Senate.

Sen. Byrne resigns to take chancellor position

State Sen. Bradley Byrne, R-Fairhope, announced that he would resign his Senate seat to accept the position as chancellor of Alabama's two-year college system, a position left vacant by the resignation of Renee Culverhouse on Tuesday. The State Board of Education confirmed his appointment Thursday by a vote of 8-1, pending his resignation from the Senate and contract approval.

This leaves a vacancy in Senate District 32, a largely Republican district. The governor must call a special election to fill Byrne's senate seat, which covers much of Baldwin County.

Alabama's two-year college system has been scrutinized for years for financial mismanagement, corruption and nepotism. Chancellor Roy Johnson was dismissed from his duties in July of 2006 and was replaced by Thomas Corts, who served as interim chancellor. Corts later resigned after complaints of his lack of communication and suggested changes in the system. He was replaced by Culverhouse, who resigned for health reasons.

Byrne, an attorney, was a state school board member for eight years, (1994- 2002) and is familiar with the system and the issues that will be facing him. He plans to start in about two weeks after wrapping up cases and said he looks forward to "coming back home."

Bills In Brief

SB 294 - Sponsored by Sen. Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery, the bill would provide civil immunity to landowners who host equine activities provided if appropriate notice is posted in accordance with the Equine Activities Liability Protection Act. A public hearing was held Wednesday at the request of the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association. Opponents of the bill argue farmers or other landowners who allow their property to be used for equine activities should be required to obtain liability insurance to cover accidents and injuries. Supporters say non-commercial activities, when properly posted, should be granted immunity. The Federation would like to see the bill expanded to include all non-commercial livestock activities such as the use of farm animals for school field days or 4-H Club and FFA events. AFF Supports.

SB 425 - Sponsored by Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, this bill would streamline the filing of liens on farm products with the Secretary of StateÍs office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Known as the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) filing bill, SB 425 would allow an original, reproduced copy or signed copy of an effective financing statement to be filed with the Secretary of State. It also would remove the requirement for farmers to provide their Social Security numbers for UCC filings. The bill passed the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and now heads to the full Senate. The companion bill, HB 795, is sponsored by Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana. It has been assigned to the House Banking and Insurance Committee. AFF Supports.

HB 289 - Sponsored by Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, HB 289 passed the House Public Safety Committee Wednesday. The bill would allow law enforcement officers to impound vehicles driven by illegal immigrants who do not have proof of liability insurance or a valid driverÍs license. The bill could present problems for farm owners who could have their vehicles seized, even if they believe the driver to be a legal guest worker. AFF opposes the bill in its current form.

SB 285 - Sponsored by Sen. Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, the Family Farm Preservation Act provides that farm operations may not be declared a public or private nuisance or be in violation of municipal or county ordinances if operated lawfully and under certain conditions. The Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, which Benefield chairs, held a public hearing on the bill May 2. Alabama farmers from across the state were on hand for the hearing and offered testimony about the importance of the bill to their operations. The committee did not meet this week. AFF Supports.

HB 275 - The House passed Thursday a bill sponsored by Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, that would create a propane checkoff program collected from the distributors. Agriculture would be exempt from the checkoff. The House previously passed the enabling legislation, HB 274. The companion bills, SB 279 and SB 284, are sponsored by Sen. Jimmy Holley, D-Elba. They have passed the Senate Constitution, Campaign, Finance, Ethics and Elections Committee and await action in the Senate. AFF Monitoring.

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