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May 09, 2008   Email to Friend 

Family Farm Bill Reaches Senate Floor, Falls Short of Passage

Championed by sponsor Sen. Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, the Family Farm Preservation Act reached the Senate floor Tuesday for the first time in eight years, but failed to receive a vote when senators raised several questions about the bill.

SB 368 would prevent law-abiding farms from being declared a public nuisance. Earlier in the session, the bill was amended in the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee to exclude pork production facilities and change the loser-pay provision. Alabama Farmers Federation committed to its membership to try to restore the protection for pork producers, which prompted discussion and delays by Sen. Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega. With only two legislative days left in the regular session, the Senate adjourned without voting on the bill. Tuesday was the last day a Senate bill could pass and still have time to be approved by a House committee and the full House.

Federation Governmental Affairs Director Paul Pinyan praised Benefield for her vocal support of the legislation, adding that the progress made this year will provide momentum for the bill next year.

“Although the Family Farm Preservation Act has passed the House in past years, it has run into roadblocks in the Senate,” Pinyan said. “Sen. Benefield was instrumental in steering the bill through the Senate Ag Committee.”

Since becoming chairman of the committee, Benefield has visited farmers throughout the state and worked to learn more about the important role agriculture plays in the state’s economy.

After the Ag Committee excluded pork production from the bill, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, put the bill on the Senate calendar, which allowed it to come up for a vote.

The trial lawyers removed their opposition to the bill after it was amended to give the presiding judge discretion to award the defendant his attorney’s fees if the lawsuit is dismissed as “frivolous.” The bill’s original language would have required the plaintiff to pay the farmer’s attorney’s fees if the farmer were to prevail.

“As a general farm organization, the Federation is committed to serving farmers of all commodities,” said Federation President Jerry A. Newby. “Efforts to exclude pork producers from the Family Farm Preservation Act are based on misinformation and unfounded fears. We will continue to work with legislators to educate them about this bill as we prepare for the next legislative session.”

As the boundaries between rural and urban areas become blurred, an increasing number of farmers are facing lawsuits by those who don’t understand agricultural practices. The Family Farm Preservation Act would provide peace of mind for all law-abiding farmers.

Ironically, no new pork production facilities have been permitted in Alabama since the state’s Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) rules went into effect in 1999. The Family Farm Preservation Act would not change these rules, nor would it protect farmers who don’t follow approved management practices.

Change in DOT exemption heads to governor

The governor is expected to sign a bill that will revise Alabama’s agricultural exemption from Federal Motor Carrier regulations and preserve more than $3 million in federal funding. The legislation passed the House of Representatives Thursday by a vote of 103-1, and now heads to the governor’s desk.

SB 482, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, would exempt all agricultural vehicles operating within 150 air miles of the farmer's headquarters with the following exceptions: Drivers operating more than one combination vehicle (truck and trailer) exceeding 26,001 pounds are required to be at least 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.

Commercial driver's license and Department of Transportation registration and door markings would not be required for farmer-owned vehicles. 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.

The Senate passed Singleton’s bill last Wednesday. Two weeks ago, the House passed the companion bill, HB 697, sponsored by Rep. Mac Gipson, R-Prattville.

The Alabama Farmers Federation originally opposed the bill but agreed to withdraw opposition after receiving confirmation from Alabama's director of Public Safety that most of the exemptions fought for last year would be preserved.

The Federation and Department of Public Safety are planning a series of workshops across the state to educate farmers about the rules of the road and further clarify the exemptions.

Public Safety Director Col. J. Christopher Murphy pledged his department will conduct itself in a professional manner and will hold training sessions for troopers on the clarification of the exemption. He requested feedback from farmers who are ticketed for federal motor carrier safety regulations.

Federation President Jerry A. Newby credited the organization’s grassroots leaders for getting the original exemption passed last year and for educating legislators about why farmers should not be treated like commercial carriers.

Catfish labeling bill dead for the session

Legislation that would require restaurants to place country-of-origin labeling information for catfish on menus, placards and other written material died Tuesday when it failed to come up for a vote in the House of Representatives.

HB 576, sponsored by Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Demopolis, was scheduled for a vote, but the House adjourned before considering the bill. Last week, the companion bill, SB 399, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, was carried over in the Senate.

Earlier in the session, a substitute for the original bill was passed by the agriculture committees in both the House and Senate after a compromise was reached by the Alabama Catfish Producers and Alabama Restaurant Association. The substitute provided additional guidance and assurances that food service establishments would not be penalized for catfish mislabeled by the wholesaler.

Legislature sends insurance bills to governor

Three insurance bills won final passage in the Legislature Thursday and have been sent to the governor for his signature.

SB 296, sponsored by Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, passed the House Thursday. The bill will retain the current structure of the Alabama Underwriting Association or "beach pool" and make it part of state law. The bill also allows the “beach pool” to issue bonds in order to raise money, and it allows the association to carry over unused funds from year to year. Earlier this year, Alabama Insurance Commissioner Walter Bell reported that Alabama is the only state where the "beach pool" plan is not included in state law.

SB 3, sponsored by Sen. Ben Brooks, R-Mobile, also passed the House. The bill allows captive insurance companies to sell residential homeowners coverage in the "beach pool" area. Currently, captive insurance companies allow businesses, governments and associations to self-insure as a group. The bill was amended to exclude automobiles and provide consumers an added level of protection.

Under the bill, captive insurers will be required to provide important consumer protection information such as available surplus, additional financial reporting to the Department of Insurance and overall soundness of the operation. Captive insurers will be required to inform policyholders that they are buying coverage from a non-traditional insurance company.

The Mobile County and Baldwin County legislative delegations were instrumental in steering the bill through the House of Representatives. Reps. James Buskey, D-Mobile; Spencer Collier, R-Irvington; Jim Barton, R-Mobile; Joseph Mitchell, D-Mobile; and Steve McMillan, R-Bay Minette, spoke in favor of the bill.

SB 4, sponsored by Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, passed the House after winning approval in the Senate during the first days of the session. It requires automobile liability 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 companion bill was HB 15, sponsored by Rep. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill.

All three bills are expected to be signed by the governor.

General Fund budget passes Legislature, awaits signature

The Senate passed a $1.8 billion General Fund budget Tuesday, and the House of Representatives concurred, sending it to the governor.

The Senate reinstated $350,000 for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to offset Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permitting fees, and added back $200,000 for meat inspections. The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries also received $100,000 for the Center for Alternative Fuels, which is $50,000 less than last year.

The Geological Survey of Alabama received $650,000 in new funding to conduct a statewide ground water assessment, which the Federation supports. The version of the budget which passed the House last month had included $1 million for the water assessment.

Hunting, fishing fines to be updated

Legislation that would update fines for hunting and fishing violations passed the Senate Tuesday and will now head to the governor for his signature.

HB 677, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, would update fines and penalties, some of which have not been changed since 1940. Under the bill, penalties would increase for hunting or fishing without a license, poaching, hunting in a closed season, hunting or fishing with prohibited devices or explosives and hunting protected animals.

The new fines will go into effect 90 days after the bill is signed by the governor.

The bill was supported by a coalition of agriculture, forestry and wildlife groups, including the Alabama Farmers Federation. It protects private property rights by discouraging poaching and trespassing. The companion bill was SB 592, sponsored by Sen. Kim Benefield, D-Woodland.

House, Senate reconvene May 19 for final day

The House and Senate will be in recess next week and will reconvene for the final day of the 2008 Regular Session on Monday, May 19.

Bills still pending include: the education budget; two article-by-article constitution revision bills; removing the state income tax deduction for federal income taxes to pay for removal of the state sales tax on food; an increased health insurance deduction for small businesses and their employees; and paying for an exemption of federal stimulus checks from income taxes by lowering the deduction for equipment.

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