Legislators taste the difference of U.S. catfish
Legislators had a chance to sample U.S. farm-raised catfish Thursday when the Alabama Catfish Producers hosted a luncheon on the south lawn of the State Capitol.
The event was held to bolster support for HB 473, which would require country-of-origin labeling of catfish served in restaurants. The bill, which is sponsored by Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Demopolis, is expected to be considered by the House of Representatives Tuesday.
In recent years, imported catfish from China and Vietnam has repeatedly tested positive for substances banned in the United States. Yet, this imported fish continues to flood the U.S. market where it undermines local farmers and is often mistaken by consumers as being U.S. farm-raised catfish. Federal law already requires catfish sold in grocery stores to have country-of-origin labeling. HB 473 requires restaurants — where most catfish is served — to disclose similar information. To make compliance easier and less costly, Alabama Catfish Producers has agreed to provide free signs, menu stickers and table tents to restaurants serving U.S. farm-raised catfish.
Additional sponsors for Thursday’s event included West Alabama Catfish Producers Association, The Catfish Institute, Harvest Select Catfish, Heartland Catfish, SouthFresh Aquaculture LLC and Alabama Catfish Feedmill. Sponsors of the luncheon prepared fried catfish for the lawmakers, and all the trimmings were catered by Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q.
According to a survey by the Alabama Catfish Producers, 97 percent of Alabamians support country-of-origin labeling for catfish served in restaurants. AFF supports.
Stimulus money helps balance state budgets
Despite the ongoing recession and proration facing state agencies, the Alabama Legislature is poised to grant final passage to budgets larger than this year’s spending levels.
On Thursday, the Senate approved a $6.2 billion education budget, which passed the House of Representatives last week. Meanwhile, a Senate committee gave a favorable report this week to the House-passed general fund budget, which includes $2.5 billion in spending. Both budgets rely heavily on federal stimulus money, causing some to question what the state will do when funding from the two-year plan runs out.
The education budget, which now heads to Gov. Bob Riley, includes $5.7 billion from the Education Trust Fund and $513 million in stimulus money. That means about 9 percent of education spending would come from one-time federal appropriations. The general fund budget, which could receive final passage in the Senate as early as next week, includes $1 billion in federal stimulus money and $1.5 billion from the state General Fund. If approved, the budget would be $579 million or 29 percent larger than this year’s expected spending level. Forty percent of the budget would come from non-recurring federal stimulus money.
The education budget includes $2.1 million for the Career Tech Initiative, $491,400 for the Rural Medical Scholars Program at the University of Alabama - Tuscaloosa, $6 million for the Alabama Agricultural Land Grant Alliance and $35.6 million for the Agricultural Experiment Station, including $158,998 for fire ant research and $44,166 for poultry research.
The general fund budget includes $1.5 million for the Agriculture & Conservation Development Commission, $315,000 for the Department of Environmental Management to offset CAFO permitting fees, $1 million for the Farmers Market Authority, $13.9 million for the Forestry Commission, $3.1 million for the Geological Survey, $4.3 million for Soil and Water Conservation Districts, $2.2 million for the RC&D program and $200,000 for the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program. The Center for Rural Alabama and Center for Alternative Fuels were excluded as line-item appropriations.
Telephone deregulation bill heads to governor
The House of Representatives granted final passage to a bill Thursday that would deregulate basic telephone service.
SB 373, sponsored by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, passed by a vote of 67-24. The bill would further limit jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission over residential telephone service and would end the PSC's jurisdiction over business service and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP). The companion bill, HB 478, was sponsored by Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia.
Concerns by the Alabama Farmers Federation that there would not be enough competition in rural areas to keep rates low were addressed with the adoption of amendments that prevent telephone companies from charging rural customers more than their urban neighbors.
AT&T argued the bill is needed to level the playing field between traditional land-line carriers and emerging Internet-based phone companies. The bill now goes to Gov. Bob Riley for his signature. AFF neutral on SB 373 as amended.
Zone-by-zone coastal insurance bill dies; others await action
The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee voted Wednesday to carry over a bill that would have changed requirements for insurance companies that participate in the Alabama Insurance Underwriting Association or “beach pool.” This action effectively killed the bill for the session.
SB 182, sponsored by Sen. Ben Brooks, R-Mobile, would have required insurance companies to assume more risk on or near the beach. This “zone-by-zone” approach could result in a net loss of policies in the north end of Baldwin and Mobile counties. The companion bill, HB 539 by Rep. Randy Davis, R-Daphne, passed the House Banking and Insurance Committee.
Meanwhile, the House Banking and Insurance Committee passed another bill by Brooks, SB 1. The legislation would provide insurance credits for homeowners who build or retrofit a home to be resistant to severe weather. The bill was amended to clarify building standards. It awaits action in the full House. A similar bill, HB 540 by Rep. Spencer Collier, R-Irvington, passed the House Banking and Insurance Committee.
A third bill by Brooks, SB 191, would prohibit application of a hurricane deductible for property damage not associated with a named tropical storm or hurricane. It has passed the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee. A similar bill, HB 542 by Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Bay Minette, has passed the House Banking and Insurance Committee. AFF opposes SB 182 and HB 539. AFF is neutral on SB 1 and HB 540, as amended, and SB 191 and HB 542.
Riley appoints three to ADEM commission
Gov. Bob Riley has nominated three members to serve on the Alabama Environmental Management Commission. The commission selects and advises the director of the Department of Environmental Management.
The commission also establishes rules, regulations and environmental standards for the department and hears appeals of administrative action. It is composed of seven members including a physician, a registered engineer, an attorney, a chemist or veterinarian, a member certified by the National Water Well Association Certification program, a biologist or ecologist, and a final member at large who has been a resident of Alabama for two years.
The physician member, Dr. Kathleen Felker of Huntsville, recently resigned, and Dr. J. Conrad Pierce of Mobile was appointed to fill the remaining term until Sept. 30, 2010. Houston Lanier Brown Jr., a Birmingham attorney with Huie, Fernambucq and Stewart, was appointed to replace Kenneth Hairston, an attorney from Huntsville employed at Alabama A&M University. Riley also reappointed Scott Phillips, an engineer with Malcolm Pirnie of Birmingham, to the certified well driller’s position. Brown and Phillips will serve until Sept. 30, 2014. All three appointments await action by the Senate Confirmations Committee and the entire Senate. AFF supports these appointments.
Bills In Brief
BIOMASS RESOLUTION, 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 resolution has passed the House and awaits action in the Senate Rules Committee. AFF supports.
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 Senate Agriculture and Forestry Committee Thursday and awaits final action in the Senate. AFF supports this concept, but believes HB 473 better addresses the concerns of consumers and producers.
ATV REGISTRATION, HB 823, sponsored by Rep. Ron Johnson, R-Sylacauga, would authorize the Alabama Department of Revenue to issue voluntary certificates of ownership for off-road (all-terrain) vehicles. The bill also would prohibit the unauthorized alteration of identification numbers on off-road vehicles and parts. The bill passed the House Public Safety Committee last week. AFF supports.
STOLEN VEHICLE TITLE, 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 it settles a claim with its policyholder. The bill would allow the insurance company to claim the vehicle if it is later recovered. The bill has passed the House and awaits action in the Senate Judiciary Committee. AFF supports.
FOOD SALES TAX, HB 116, sponsored by Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, would remove the 4 percent state sales tax on food and offset the lost revenue by reducing or removing the state income tax deduction for federal income taxes paid. The bill has repeatedly failed to secure enough votes to come up for a vote in the House but is back on the House calendar for Tuesday. AFF supports lowering the tax on food but opposes raising taxes on income.
UNEMPLOYMENT, SB 460, sponsored by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, would expand unemployment benefits to an additional 20,000 people in order for the state to receive $100 million in federal stimulus money. Business groups oppose the bill because it would place an additional burden on employers that already are paying more into the Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund due to rising unemployment. The bill fell one vote shy of securing enough votes Thursday to be considered by the Senate. AFF opposes.
CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION, HJR 91, sponsored by Rep. Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, would call a special election on the issue of calling a convention to revise Alabama’s 1901 constitution. The resolution sets guidelines for electing delegates and provides for a special election to ratify the proposed constitution. The resolution failed twice in the Senate Rules Committee during the past two weeks. AFF favors an article-by-article approach to revising the constitution.
ACCIDENT RESPONSE FEES, SB 567, sponsored by Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, would prohibit individuals or their insurance companies from being charged accident response service fees by law enforcement agencies. The bill passed the Senate Finance and Taxation - General Fund Committee Thursday. AFF supports.