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April 17, 2009   Email to Friend 

Catfish labeling bill to be considered by House

The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee Wednesday passed a bill that would require country-of-origin labeling of catfish served in restaurants. HB 473, which received a favorable report from the committee earlier in the session, was recommitted to change the enforcement agency from the Department of Agriculture and Industries to the Department of Public Health.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Demopolis, offered the change because the health department already inspects restaurants and other food service establishments.

Alabama Catfish Producers Director Mitt Walker says he hopes the revised bill will have strong support when it heads to the full House of Representatives.

“This revised bill addresses many of the concerns presented by opponents of the bill,” Walker said. “In addition, the catfish industry has agreed to provide free signs, menu stickers and table-top displays to any restaurant serving U.S. farm-raised catfish.”

To rally support for the bill, the Alabama Catfish Producers this week distributed DVDs to all members of the Legislature that highlight the differences between U.S. farm-raised catfish and fish produced abroad.

The five-minute video, which was produced by The Catfish Institute, contrasts the strict health and environmental guidelines of the United States with the controversy caused by banned substances found in Chinese and Vietnamese imports.

According to a survey conducted by the Alabama Catfish Producers, 97 percent of Alabamians support country-of-origin labeling for catfish served in restaurants.

HB 473 could be on the House calendar as early as next week. AFF supports.

Telephone deregulation bill one step closer to law

A bill that would deregulate basic telephone service cleared the House Government Operations Committee Wednesday after passing the Senate last week.

SB 373, sponsored by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, would further limit jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission over residential telephone service and would delete the PSC's jurisdiction over business service and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP). AT&T, which supports the bill, has argued the legislation is needed to level the playing field with Internet-based phone companies like Vonage and Skype.

Alabama Farmers Federation initially raised concerns that the bill would allow phone companies to charge rural residents more than their urban counterparts and that there would not be sufficient competition among providers in those areas to hold down rates. This concern was addressed with the adoption of amendments that state the “rate for residential basic telephone service and for a business customer who subscribes to no more than one line of basic telephone service shall be the same in rural areas as in urban areas of the state or no higher than the rates for basic service in existence on the effective date of the act adding this language.”

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, has been a vocal opponent of the bill, but supporters seized an opportunity to bring the measure up for a vote last week when Singleton was absent from the chamber, and it passed by a 19-8 vote.

The bill will now be placed on the House calendar. If passed, the legislation would go to the governor for his signature. AFF neutral on SB 373 as amended.

Republicans introduce alternative food tax bills

Two new bills were introduced last week that would provide tax breaks to Alabama families for grocery purchases.

A proposal by Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, that would remove the 4 percent state sales tax on food has repeatedly failed to secure enough votes for consideration in the House of Representatives. Opposition to HB 116 stems from language that would eliminate the state income tax deduction for federal income taxes paid by certain taxpayers.

The most recent bills that would provide food tax relief to Alabama families are HB 842M, sponsored by Rep. Greg Wren, R-Montgomery, and HB 862, sponsored by Rep. DuWayne Bridges, R-Valley.

Wren’s bill would eliminate the state sales tax on food by reducing it 1 percentage point per year following years when the Education Trust Fund had growth of at least 3 percent.

Bridges’ bill would provide a refundable income tax credit to low-income taxpayers to offset the estimated amount of state sales tax their family pays on groceries each year. Under HB 862, the income tax rebate would be $75 per person or $300 for a family of four in households with adjusted gross incomes of less than $15,000 a year. The rebate would be $65 per person or $260 for a family of four with incomes between $15,000 and $22,000. The plan would cost about $20 million a year.

Two other bills were previously introduced that would remove or reduce the state sales tax on food. HB 79, sponsored by Rep. Robert Bentley, R-Tuscaloosa, would reduce the state sales tax on food to 2 percent while limiting the deductibility of federal income taxes and exempting certain retirement income from taxation. HB 697, sponsored by Rep. Benjamin Lewis, R-Dothan, is similar to Wren’s bill, but it also would prohibit counties and municipalities from raising taxes on food above the rate in effect when the law was enacted. All four bills are assigned to the House Education Appropriations Committee. Alabama Farmers Federation supports removing sales taxes on food, but opposes raising taxes on income.

ATV registration bill includes stiff penalties to deter theft

The Alabama Department of Revenue would be authorized to issue voluntary certificates of ownership for off-road (all-terrain) vehicles under a bill introduced last week by Rep. Ron Johnson, R-Sylacauga.

HB 823 also would prohibit the unauthorized alteration of identification numbers on off-road vehicles and parts. Violation of the law would be a Class C felony.

The fee for obtaining a certificate of ownership under the bill would be $12.

Alabama Farmers Federation supports the registration of ATVs to aid in the recovery of stolen vehicles and in the prosecution of trespassing laws. The unauthorized use of ATVs on farm land is blamed for thousands of dollars each year in crop, fence and land damage. AFF supports.

Biomass resolution urges Congress to fix definition

A joint resolution now pending in the Senate Rules Committee is aimed at ensuring Alabama forest owners are eligible to participate in the emerging renewable energy market through the production of biomass.

HJR 471, sponsored by Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, urges Congress to follow a uniform definition of renewable biomass as contained in the 2008 farm bill. The resolution was prompted by language in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 that restricts about 15 million acres of private forests in Alabama from being used for biomass energy production under the Renewable Fuel Standards.

The conflicting language was supported by environmental groups that seek to limit the definition of biomass to discourage plantation management and other forest management practices used by landowners.

Bills are currently pending in Congress that would replace the current Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) definition of renewable biomass with the definition contained in the 2008 farm bill. H.R. 1190 is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., and the Senate version, S.636, is sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

Forestry is one of Alabama’s leading industries, accounting for 188,000 jobs and $23 billion in annual economic impact in the state. Eighty percent of Alabama’s 22 million acres of forests are owned by non-industrial, private landowners.

Fincher’s resolution is supported by the Alabama Forestry Commission. AFF supports.

Bills In Brief

CONSTITUTIONAL INITIATIVE, SB 378 and HB 279, sponsored by Sen. Ted Little, D-Auburn, and Rep. Mike Ball, R-Huntsville, would propose an amendment to the constitution that would allow voters to propose the enactment of general laws and constitutional amendments through an initiative process. To be considered, an initiative would have to include a petition signed by 1,000 voters and a $1,000 filing fee. The initiative method has been frequently used in other states to enact laws related to animal rights, home rule and social issues. Alabama’s current legislative process allows voters to initiate action through accountable, elected officials while ensuring new laws are properly vetted and discussed rather than being influenced by well-funded public relations campaigns. The bills await committee action in their respective chambers. AFF opposes.

SEAFOOD DISCLOSURE, HB 435, sponsored by Rep. Spencer Collier, R-Irvington, would provide that the consumer has the right to know if certain farm-raised fish or wild fish served at food service establishments is imported or domestic. The bill passed the House on Thursday. Its companion, SB 194 by Sen. Jim Preuitt, D-Talladega, has passed the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. AFF supports this concept, but believes HB 473 better addresses the concerns of consumers and producers.

MINI-TRUCKS, HB 752, sponsored by Rep. Spencer Collier, R-Irvington, would authorize a certificate of title for certain mini-trucks to operate on the streets and highways of Alabama, except interstate highways. Mini-trucks, which often are imported from Asia, are increasingly popular with farmers because of their fuel efficiency and convenience. The bill passed the House Public Safety Committee and awaits action in the full House. AFF supports.

PLASTICULTURE, HB 709, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, would provide a sales tax exemption for plastic used in plasticulture. Plastic mulch is commonly used by growers of vegetables, strawberries and other crops. The bill has been assigned to the House Education Appropriations Committee. AFF supports.

SURPLUS INSURERS, SB 558, sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, would exempt out-of-state, surplus-line insurers from a law requiring them to be in business for five years before selling insurance in Alabama. Surplus insurers could be exempt from the law provided they place a special deposit with the state. The bill passed the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Tuesday. The companion bill, HB 803 by Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Bay Minette, passed the House Banking and Insurance Committee last week. AFF neutral.

LIVESTOCK THEFT, SB 362, sponsored by Sen. Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, would give livestock theft investigators the power and authority to execute search warrants. Investigators with the Department of Agriculture and Industries have requested this authority to help curtail a recent rash of cattle rustling. The bill passed the Senate and is assigned to the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee. AFF supports. INLAND WATERWAYS, HB 659 and SB 368, sponsored by Rep. Terry Spicer, D-Elba, and Sen. Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, would create the Office of Inland Waterways within the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and would create a fund to develop infrastructure needed for industry and transportation on waterways. HB 659 passed the House and has been assigned to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. SB 368 has passed committee and awaits action in the Senate. AFF supports.

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