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February 11, 2009   Email to Friend 

Riley calls for fiscal discipline, ethics reform

Lean budgets, government accountability and ethics reform were the central themes of Gov. Bob Riley’s State of the State address, in which he spoke against raising taxes and expanding gambling.

In announcing what he called the Alabama Economic Recovery Plan, Riley said the state must avoid going on a spending spree while it awaits stimulus money from the federal government.

“The economy has forced families to tighten their belts,” Riley said “Their government has and must continue to do the same.” Cutbacks include a freeze on new hires, employee pay raises and new vehicle purchases. Riley’s education budget calls for level funding from last year, and he encouraged lawmakers to preserve successful programs like the Alabama Reading Initiative and distance learning.

Although the governor’s proposed general fund budget is $350 million less than last year, it does include $200,000 in technical assistance funding for the Soil and Water Conservation Committee. This money would be used to leverage federal funding under the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP).

The Federation, in cooperation with the Alabama Soil and Water Conservation Districts and others, is drafting a proposal that would allow producers to obtain cost-share assistance under the program, which was sponsored by former U.S. Rep. Terry Everett and U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions and authorized in the 2008 farm bill.

In his address, Riley noted that Alabama has fared better than most states during the economic crisis — with an unemployment rate and business climate that rank among the best in the nation. To expand economic growth and preserve these gains, Riley proposed tax incentives for businesses that hire employees off the unemployment rolls or that create new jobs in counties with high unemployment. Riley talked tough, however, when recommending the first complete overhaul of the state ethics code since 1973.

“Revitalizing our economy must be our priority. But Alabama will never reach its full potential unless we enact ethics reforms that finally build confidence in our state government,” Riley said.

The governor also used strong language when opposing tax increases and the expansion of gambling. “Higher taxes would only make a tough situation even more difficult for the people of Alabama. We are here to ease their burdens – not add to them,” he said.

In addressing proposals to tax gambling in order to raise money for education, Riley noted that such taxes would bring in less than 1 percent of what the state and federal governments spend on education in Alabama.

“The real question is: are we willing to invite more misery, more corruption and more crime into our state just to gain less than 1 percent? I know I’m not, and the people aren’t either,” Riley said.

Smitherman replaces Mitchem as Senate pro tem

Weeks of speculation about the leadership of the Senate ended Thursday when Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, replaced Sen. Hinton Mitchem, D-Union Grove, as president pro tem.

Mitchem, who was elected pro tem by his colleagues in 2007, had agreed to step down after two years and allow Smitherman to be elected. Mitchem later said he would not resign unless Smitherman had enough votes to be elected. That prompted questions about whether Smitherman would be able to secure the 17 votes needed, given the three open seats in the Senate created by the election of Sen. Parker Griffith, D-Huntsville, to Congress; the death of Sen. Pat Lindsey, D-Butler; and the conviction of Sen. E.B. McClain, D-Midfield, on corruption charges.

Earlier in the week both Mitchem and Smitherman told reporters that Smitherman had the required votes. Mitchem subsequently resigned Thursday, and Smitherman was promptly elected by a vote of 18-12. Eleven Republican senators and Sen. Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega, voted for Senate Minority Leader Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills. Sens. Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery, and Charles Bishop, R-Jasper, were absent for the vote.

With the change in leadership, Sen. Myron Penn, D-Union Springs, became chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Mitchem was named chairman of the Confirmations Committee.

Joint water committee recommends legislation

Alabama could take a step toward a statewide water management plan, if legislation recommended by the Permanent Joint Legislative Committee on Water Policy and Management is approved by lawmakers.

The committee announced Jan. 27 that it would recommend two resolutions and one bill during the legislative session. The first resolution addresses organizing the data needed to clearly evaluate the state’s water resources and needs, said Sen. Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, who chairs the committee.

“The process of developing a statewide water management plan that serves the needs of all Alabamians requires mountains of data,” Benefield said. “Throughout the process we have seen that our state agencies would be well served to have better tools to collect and share water resource data.”

SJR 5, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would provide for a technical advisory committee, a sharable data repository and enhanced surface and ground water assessment and monitoring.

The second resolution, proposed by Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Demopolis, would identify recommendations for developing watershed districts while calling for dam safety regulations. In addition, the committee agreed to support a bill that would create a commission within the Alabama Department of Transportation to manage transportation along inland waterways. The bill, HB 118, is sponsored Rep. Terry Spicer, D-Elba.

In the past eight months, the Committee held 11 meetings, including five of the full body and seven subcommittee meetings, in nearly every region of the state. The bulk of the meetings examined the varied uses of water and included comments from stakeholders who depend on it, including the Alabama Farmers Federation.

The Water Committee is required to provide recommendations to the full Legislature by the 15th legislative day of the 2009 Regular Session.

Commissioner Sparks comments on cockfighting bill

Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Ron Sparks issued a news release Wednesday expressing concerns over a bill that would make cockfighting a felony in Alabama.

HB 245, sponsored by Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and SB 146, sponsored by Sen. Hinton Mitchem, D-Union Grove, would make it a Class C felony for a person to own, possess, keep, raise or train any cock with the intent that the cock shall be engaged in fighting another cock.

Sparks has repeatedly stated that he opposes gaffing roosters and having them fight. However, he said the problem with the bill is that it puts the burden of proof on the owner of a rooster to show the animal is not being raised for fighting.

“To not be able to raise roosters is absurd,” added Sparks. “That means if your son or daughter wants to raise a rooster to show at the fair, they could get in trouble for committing a felony if their roosters show signs of fighting, which roosters naturally do on their own.”

The bill is supported by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which operates no humane shelters but has amassed millions of dollars to wage campaigns against animal agriculture in states like Florida, Arizona and California.

Alabama Farmers Federation and Sparks noted that another flaw in the bill is that there is no mention of the role of the state veterinarian. The bill could, however, give animal rights groups the authority to confiscate animals and make decisions about the disposition of those animals. The Federation opposes giving HSUS or any other non-government organization regulatory authority over livestock and animal agriculture.

AFF opposes cockfighting and support strict enforcement of cockfighting laws. However, the Federation opposes HB 245 and SB 146 as introduced.

Energy committee sends 11 bills to Legislature

The Permanent Joint Legislative Committee on Energy Policy issued a report Tuesday stating that the group would send 11 bills and four resolutions to the Legislature.

One of those bills, the Alternative Motor Fuels Security Act, would provide payments to Alabama producers of biofuels; provide payments to alternative fuel suppliers selling these fuels to public school systems in the state; and provide payments for use of alternative fuels by farmers in the production of renewable feedstocks used to manufacture biofuels.

The committee is co-chaired by Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, and Rep. Greg Wren, R-Montgomery. The committee’s recommendations this year include legislation dealing with the transportation of ethyl alcohol for fuel; procurement procedures for “green” vehicles by the state; a proposed state sales tax holiday for energy-efficient appliances; tax incentives for the installation of energy-efficient technology in homes and businesses; and a grant program for energy efficiency projects. The committee also recommended two resolutions encouraging the use of biodiesel in school buses and state vehicles.

On Thursday, seven of the recommended bills passed out of House committees. These include HB 186, sponsored by Rep. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill. It would legalize the transportation of ethyl alcohol intended for use as fuel. Another bill, HB 194, sponsored by Rep. Betty Carol Graham, D-Alexander City, would establish the Alabama Public Interest Energy Research and Development Grants Program to provide funding for energy-related public interest energy research and development. The bill would provide a mechanism for the state to secure grants from outside sources.

Bills in Brief

HB 429, sponsored by Rep. Ken Guin, D-Carbon Hill, would allow the state to issue a title on a stolen vehicle to an insurance company after that company had settled a claim with its policyholder. The bill would allow the insurance company to claim the vehicle if it were later recovered. HB 429 has been assigned to the House Banking and Insurance Committee. AFF Supports.

HB 116M, sponsored by Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, would remove the 4 percent state sales tax on food. The lost revenue would be offset by reducing or removing the state income tax deduction for federal income taxes paid. A similar bill was introduced last year, but failed due to opposition to the removal of the federal income tax deduction. The bill was amended Thursday to stagger the level of the deduction based on adjusted gross income. AFF supports lowering the tax on food but opposes raising taxes on income.

HB 77 and HB 78, sponsored by Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, would allow for an article-by-article approach to revising the banking and railroad articles of the Alabama Constitution, respectively. AFF supports this approach to revising the Constitution.

HB 90, sponsored by Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, would make criminals liable for damages caused to property during the commission of the crime of metal theft. AFF Supports.

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