Public Safety director clarifies exemptions; Federation Board withdraws opposition
The Alabama Farmers Federation Board of Directors voted Monday to withdraw its opposition to legislation that replaces the federal motor carrier exemption passed last year, after receiving confirmation from Alabama's director of Public Safety that most of the exemptions fought for last year would be preserved.
In a memo to the highway patrol, Col. J. Christopher Murphy clarified that, if pending legislation passes, all agricultural vehicles operating within 150 air miles of the farmer's headquarters will be exempt from federal motor carrier regulations with the following exceptions: Drivers operating more than one combination vehicle (truck and trailer) exceeding 26,001 pounds are required to be 18 years of age and have a medical card; and vehicle maintenance and inspection records must be maintained on combination vehicles of more than 26,001 pounds.
Murphy stated that a commercial driver's license and Department of Transportation registration and door markings would not be required for farmer-owned vehicles operating within 150 air miles of the farm. In addition, hours-of-service rules for drivers would not be applied to drivers transporting agricultural or farm supplies at any time during the year.
These exemptions would go into effect pending enactment of HB 697, sponsored by Rep. Mac Gipson, R-Prattville, or SB 482, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro. Gipson's bill was approved by the House Government Appropriations Committee and is expected to be voted on by the full House Tuesday.
Murphy pledged that the Department of Public Safety will conduct itself in a professional manner and will hold a training session for troopers on the clarification of the exemption. He requested feedback from farmers who are ticketed for federal motor carrier safety regulations.
"The Department of Public Safety is committed to enforcing the provisions of Alabama law respecting commercial motor vehicle safety, following enactment of the above-referenced proposed legislation...in a manner fully consistent with the clarifications and interpretations set forth in this memorandum," Murphy wrote.
Paul Pinyan, director of the Federation's Department of Governmental Affairs, said the Board's vote to withdraw its opposition clears the way for passage of a bill that would preserve more than $3 million in federal funding while providing farmers with the exemptions originally sought.
"This would not have happened without the hard work of our grassroots leaders," Pinyan said. "The work done last year to win passage of the original exemption helped educate lawmakers and the Department of Public Safety about farmers' needs and why they should not be treated like commercial carriers.
"There is broad-based support in both the House and Senate for farmers on this issue, but the prospect of losing more than $3 million puts legislators in a difficult position. Because our members were so vocal on this issue, it opened lines of communications with the Department of Public Safety and brought about reforms that resulted in Col. Murphy's clarification of the law."
Farmers who met with Murphy last week at the State House said the 150-mile exemption would address most of their concerns, but they asked several questions about how specific portions of the regulations would be interpreted. Murphy agreed to address those concerns in writing, which resulted in the memo he sent to the highway patrol.
"Since taking the reins at the Department of Public Safety, Col. Murphy has shown a refreshing willingness to work with Alabama farmers to ensure they are not burdened by additional paperwork and regulations," Pinyan said. "As these bills move through the Legislature, we will be vigilant in making sure no amendments or changes are offered that would change the intent of the bill or weaken the exemptions spelled out in Col. Murphy's memo."
Following planting season, the Federation, in conjunction with the Department of Public Safety, will sponsor a series of workshops across the state to educate farmers about the rules of the road. Pinyan said this will foster understanding between farmers and troopers and will further clarify the exemptions.
House-passed General Fund budget cuts agricultural funding
Many state agencies will have 11 percent less than expected to spend next year under a General Fund budget passed by the House of Representatives Tuesday.
The House voted 97-6 to approve the $2 billion budget, which is larger than last year's budget despite shortfalls in projected revenues. The 11 percent across-the-board cut applied to most agencies with the exception of Medicaid, Mental Health, Human Resources, Public Health, Senior Services and Child Abuse and Prevention, which were not cut.
Absent from the budget was $350,000 for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to offset Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permitting fees. Funding for the Department of Agriculture and Industries also was cut including $200,000 for meat inspections, $200,000 for fire ant research, $150,000 for the Center for Rural Alabama and $150,000 for the Center for Alternative Fuels.
The Geological Survey of Alabama, however, received $1 million in new funding to conduct a statewide ground water assessment, which the Federation supports.
The Federation will work to restore funding for agricultural programs in the Senate. The budget is expected to be considered next week by the Senate Finance and Taxation, General Fund Committee, chaired by Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville. Federation leaders are encouraged to contact members of this committee and urge them to restore funding for CAFO permitting fees and agricultural projects.
Members of the committee are: Sens. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro; Parker Griffith, D-Huntsville; Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe; Scott Beason, R-Gardendale; Kim Benefield, D-Woodland; Steve French, R-Birmingham; Rusty Glover, R-Semmes; Pat Lindsey, D-Butler; Zeb Little, D-Cullman; E.B. McClain, D-Midfield; Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne; Hinton Mitchem, D-Union Grove; Arthur Orr, R-Decatur; Myron Penn, D-Union Springs; Tripp Pittman, R-Fairhope; Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega; and Hank Sanders, D-Selma.
Legislature creates commissions to study water, Internet service and litter enforcement
Legislation that would create commissions on issues ranging from water and litter enforcement to rural broadband Internet access has seen action in the Legislature this session.
HB 346, sponsored by Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, has passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate. It would create the Alabama Broadband Task Force, which would be charged with expanding access to high-speed Internet services for education, health and economic purposes. The task force would include appointments representing telephone carriers, cable television companies, satellite television companies, the Alabama Supercomputer Authority, mobile radio service providers, Internet service providers as well as members of the House and Senate. Alabama Farmers Federation is seeking to amend the bill in the Senate to include a task force member from the Federation.
SJR 28, sponsored by Sen. Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, has passed both the House and Senate and awaits the governor's signature. It would create the Alabama Permanent Joint Legislative Committee on Water Policy and Management. The purpose is to develop the 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 committee would be composed of the chair of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry; the chair of the House Commerce Committee; the chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Transportation and Utilities; the chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources; five members of the House appointed by the speaker; two members of the Senate appointed by the lieutenant governor; and two members of the Senate appointed by the president pro tem of the Senate.
SJR 13, sponsored by Sen. Hinton Mitchem, D-Union Grove, has been signed by the governor. It created a commission to enhance the enforcement of Alabama's litter laws. The commission includes members of the Senate and House as well as representatives from local law enforcement, municipal government, state law enforcement, the Department of Economic and Community Affairs, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the court system and People Against a Littered State (PALS). Federation policy states, "We support stricter and stronger enforcement of existing anti-litter laws." The Federation also is represented on the PALS board of directors and supports anti-litter projects of that organization.
The Federation is working with the sponsors of these bills as well as the governor's office, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House to ensure agriculture and rural Alabama are well represented on these commissions.
College savings tax break close to being law
Parents who save for their children's college education using two state-sponsored programs could receive a tax break under a bill passed Wednesday by the Senate Finance and Taxation-Education Committee.
Sponsored by Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre, and championed by State Treasurer Kay Ivey, HB 43 would allow families to deduct up to $5,000 per year invested in the Prepaid Affordable College Tuition Plan or the Alabama Higher Education 529 Fund. The bill has already passed the House and needs only a vote in the full Senate before going to the governor's desk for signing into law. A companion bill, SB 128, is sponsored by Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, and has been assigned to the Senate Finance and Taxation-Education Committee.
Children who go to college using the savings plans are already exempt from paying state and federal income tax on the money withdrawn from the two plans.
The bill is tied to another that awaits action in the full Senate. HB 356, also sponsored by Lindsey, would offset the funding lost under HB 43 by requiring out-of-state residents to withhold and remit income taxes from the sale of property in Alabama. HB 43 is projected to save families $1.5 million annually, but HB 356 could generate as much as $3.5 million a year in new revenue.