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March 14, 2008   Email to Friend 

House bill would weaken DOT exemptions for Alabama farmers

A bill backed by Gov. Bob Riley and the Alabama Department of Public Safety was introduced Thursday and would remove the full exemption for agriculture from Federal Motor Carrier intrastate regulations and would replace existing law with a much more narrow exemption.

HB 697, sponsored by Rep. Mac Gipson, R-Prattville, would exempt only those vehicles with a gross weight of 26,000 pounds and less. Farmers who use larger trucks to haul grain, livestock and other agricultural products would lose their exemption under the proposed bill.

The Alabama Farmers Federation Board of Directors met earlier this week and voted to support current state law, which exempts all production agriculture from Federal Motor Carrier intrastate regulations.

“Once the board of directors reviewed the organization's policy, there was no question that the organization would continue to support a full exemption for agriculture,” said Federation Executive Director Mike Kilgore. “Our policy states: 'We support an exemption for production agriculture from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.' The board interpreted this policy to mean all production agriculture, not just vehicles weighing 26,000 pounds and less.”

When the Legislature passed the current, full-agricultural exemption last year, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) guidelines allowed states to declare exemptions by industry or weight class either through administrative variance or through legislative action. After seeking an administrative variance from the governor for nearly a year with no action being taken by him, the Federation and other ag groups went to the Legislature for a remedy and received a full agricultural exemption through legislative action in 2007. A task force appointed by the governor also had recommended that he issue an administrative order allowing the variance.

The FMCSA has since warned the state it will lose $1.1 million in federal funding for this budget year and an expected $3.4 million annually thereafter, if the exemption is not repealed.

“Other states have full agricultural exemptions, and some have exemptions based on higher gross vehicle weights than 26,000 pounds,” said Federation Governmental Affairs Director Paul Pinyan. “However, the exemptions in those states were grandfathered before current FMCSA regulations went into effect. That's why the Federation and American Farm Bureau are supporting federal legislation to standardize the exemptions for farm vehicles.”

HR 3098, sponsored by Congressman Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, would adjust the federal definition of commercial motor vehicles and specifically exempt drivers and farm trucks engaged in the intrastate transportation of agricultural products. Aderholt addressed the need for the legislation last week during the Washington Legislative Trip. In addition, his bill would prohibit the FMSCA from using the threat of withholding federal funds if a state did not concur with the federal guidelines for intrastate commercial vehicles.

AFBF made the exemption part of national policy during its annual meeting in January. The Farm Bureau Board of Directors also has made passage of HR 3098 one of its legislative priorities.

Senate Ag Committee hears testimony supporting Family Farm Preservation Act

Farmers testified Wednesday morning before members of the Senate Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation Committee, urging them to pass the Family Farm Preservation Act (SB 368) out of committee. In a packed hearing room at the Statehouse, opponents of the bill also testified, including Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, who is chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee.

Committee Chairman Sen. Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, sponsored the bill, opened the meeting explaining why it's important to preserve the family farm and remove threats of lawsuits aimed at putting farmers out of business.

“Farmers today face many obstacles,” Benefield said. “There was a time when their biggest problem was the weather. Now, today, the threat of lawsuits really impacts farmers. Do we want to become dependent on foreign countries for our food? I don't think we do.”

Stuart Sanderson of Limestone County told members of the committee that he and all farmers are good stewards of the soil, adding that he considers farmers a natural resource the state couldn't afford to lose.

“I am a natural resource and I am a part of a larger resource – the American farmer,” Sanderson said as he asked senators to pass the bill out of committee. “We see what has happened to fuel and energy. Do we really want the production of our food and fiber to come from the hands of people who hate us? Plain and simple, that's what we're looking at.

“I'm dealing with a situation where people are moving from town, buying farmland and trying to shut me down,” he added.

Barron said he would like to see changes in the bill, adding that he could possibly support the measure if hogs were excluded from the bill.

Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Ron Sparks spoke in favor of the bill, noting that agriculture is the state's largest industry.

“The farmer is probably regulated as much as any industry in this state,” Sparks said, noting that the number of farmers continues to decline each year. “We have got to protect the American farmer. I don't want a farmer not abiding by the rules, but we have some good farmers in this state who want to do the right thing. But at the same, I don't want somebody moving down here from New York next to my farm and telling me I can't farm.”

Neal Bryant of Jackson County testified before the committee and told of an adjoining property owner who threatened to sue him because weaned calves he owned were making too much noise.

“I had never really been too much involved in this bill before, but when it gets in your pocket, it's a different matter,” he said.

Alabama Farmers Federation has asked Benefield to bring the bill up for a vote as soon as possible following spring break next week.

Bills in Brief

SJR 28 – Sponsored by Sen. Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, has been assigned to the House Rules Committee. This resolution would create the Alabama Permanent Joint Legislative Committee on Water Policy and Management. The purpose is to develop an Alabama Water Management Plan to recommend to the governor and the Legislature courses of action to address the state’s long-term and short-term water resource challenges. The joint resolution has passed the Senate. AFF supports.

HB 576 & SB 399 – Sponsored by Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Demopolis, and Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, the bills would require food service establishments to provide country-of-origin labeling of catfish. Federation leaders met last week with the bill sponsors and representatives of the Alabama Retail Association and the Alabama Restaurant Association. Retailers and restaurant representatives voiced concerns about how the bill will impact their members’ business. The sponsors have asked representatives of the Retail Association and Restaurant Association to recommend amendments to address their concerns. The sponsors of the bill have pledged to continue to push the bills through in a timely manner. The bills have been assigned to the agriculture committees in their respective houses. AFF supports.

HB 454 – Sponsored by Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, the Safe Dam Legislation would require an inventory and classification of dams by the Alabama Office of Water Resources. The sponsor has withdrawn the bill after several groups have expressed opposition to it.

HB 94 – Sponsored by Rep. Ron Johnson, R-Sylacauga, the bill would require title registration and a registration decal for all-terrain vehicles starting with 2010 models. The House-passed bill awaits final passage in the Senate. AFF supports.

HB 718 – Sponsored by Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, would increase fees and change regulations for outdoor advertising signs. Of particular interest to farmers is the adverse effects the bill could have on signs used by farm and agritourism operations. AFF opposes.

SB 426 & HB 720 – Sponsored by Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, and Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Morris, requires worker identification cards for out-of-state residents, prohibiting illegal aliens from receiving government benefits, denying government contracts to businesses that employ undocumented workers and increasing penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants. A public hearing on the Senate bill was held last week by the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability Committee. No vote was taken. The House bill was introduced Thursday and assigned to the House Judiciary Committee. AFF opposes bill as written.

HB 99, SB 148 & SB 321 – Sponsored by Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, and Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, the bills would allow property owners to recover the cost of damages incurred during the theft of copper or scrap metal. HB 99 has passed the House Judiciary Committee. SB 148 and SB 321 are pending action in the Senate Judiciary Committee. AFF supports.

HB 138 – Sponsored by Rep. Frank McDaniel, D-Albertville, excludes agriculture from a proposed law that would require employers to obtain a child labor certificate for employees ages 14-17. AFF monitoring.

Bill would increase fines for uninsured motorists

The House approved a bill Tuesday that increases the fines for vehicle owners who don’t have insurance. The bill passed the House 96-0 and requires vehicle owners to prove they have insurance when they buy tags for their vehicles.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, also requires insurance companies to provide information to license clerks and law enforcement officers to determine if a vehicle is insured.

The bill, HB 162, increases the fine for not having vehicle insurance from $100 to $500. The bill now goes to the Senate for debate.

Despite having an existing law that requires minimum liability insurance for all vehicles, Alabama ranks high among states with large numbers of uninsured motorists.

Earlier this session, the House and Senate passed bills that would raise minimum liability insurance limits for motorists.

HB 15, sponsored by Rep. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill, would require insurance of $25,000 for the injury or death of one person, $50,000 for multiple injuries or deaths and $25,000 for property damage. Current minimum limits are $20,000, $40,000 and $10,000, respectively. The bill also would raise the coverage required for uninsured motorists. The bill is awaiting action by the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee.

A similar bill, SB 4, sponsored by Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, passed the Senate Feb. 7 and awaits final action in the House.

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