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January 22, 2010   Email to Friend 

Farmers testify at public hearing on Family Farm Preservation Act

Alabama farmers overflowed a State House meeting room Wednesday to show support for the Family Farm Preservation Act, SB 61.

Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee Chairman Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, opened the public hearing by recounting her personal reasons for sponsoring the legislation.

“I grew up on a farm; my parents were poultry growers,” Benefield said. “Farming is not (just) a way to make a living. Farming is a way of life.

“I hate to see our country become dependent on foreign countries for our food supply,” she continued. “But today, people are not moving to the cities. People have moved to the country. They want to enjoy the lifestyle. But some people who have grown up in the cities move to rural areas, and they don’t know what it’s like to farm.”

Benefield said the Family Farm Preservation Act would safeguard farmers from baseless lawsuits filed by those who don’t appreciate agriculture. The bill, which was first introduced 10 years ago, reached the Senate floor for the first time in 2008, but the Senate adjourned without voting.

Sen. Harri Anne Smith, R-Slocomb, commended Benefield for getting the Family Farm Preservation Act on the Senate Agriculture Committee agenda early in the session. Smith noted that the bill is important to her constituents, and early action by the Committee could expedite passage.

Morgan County young farmer Jennifer Cruise testified on behalf of the legislation, which would prevent law-abiding farms from being declared a public nuisance.

“We are blessed to be able to raise our three children on the farm. We are blessed to be able to have a great relationship with our neighbors,” Cruise said. “Yes, there are bad apples out there. This bill is not to protect them. Without this bill we are at risk of having frivolous lawsuits that will drive farmers out of business.”

Opposition to the bill came from a vocal group of DeKalb County residents, who have sought legal and regulatory action against hog farmers in their area. In response to a Henagar resident who testified against the bill, Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, noted “farming is different” today and America must have larger farms to feed a growing population. “To have bacon at affordable prices, you’ve got to have hog farms,” Little said.

Little went on to tell of a relative who was sued by a neighbor that was unhappy with a pasture being used for grazing. In addition, Benefield recalled a young farmer in her area who was prevented from building poultry houses when a real estate developer threatened to file a lawsuit.

Autauga County farmer Andy Wendland, who testified on behalf of the bill, said the number of neighbors on his farm’s southern border has grown from one a few years ago to 20 today. This migration from cities to the country, he added, threatens the farming way of life. The Family Farm Preservation Act would provide some degree of assurance to farmers without infringing on others’ legal rights. “This bill does not keep anybody from filing litigation if they feel they need to do this,” Wendland said.

Benefield has scheduled a vote on the bill next Wednesday. AFF supports.

Federation-supported bills clear House Ag Committee

Bills that would save producer-funded checkoff programs money and reduce cumbersome paperwork for hunting preserve owners passed the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee Wednesday. Similar bills were approved by Senate committees last week.

HB 121 and SB 97, sponsored by Rep. Tammy Irons, D-Florence, and Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, allows checkoff programs to conduct full audits every two years, rather than annually. It requires the programs to file a financial statement every year, but reduces the cost associated with a full audit.

“This bill would result in substantial savings for commodity checkoffs without sacrificing transparency and accountability,” said Alabama Farmers Federation Director of Agricultural Legislation Brian Hardin. “The proposed legislation would streamline all of the checkoff legislation to be consistent in regards to publishing disbursements.”

Meanwhile, the House Ag Committee also gave a favorable report to HB 302, sponsored by Chairman Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville. The companion bill, SB 76, is sponsored by Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville.

It provides licensed bird-hunting preserves the option of buying an annual license for $500 that would cover hunters on the property who do not already have the appropriate license. The legislation is supported by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and would benefit the state’s growing quail-hunting tourism business.

“One challenge of quail-hunting preserves is the cumbersome process of providing individual hunting licenses for groups of hunters as they visit a preserve,” said Federation Wildlife Division Director Steve Guy. “The process is unwieldy and very time-consuming.”

HB 121 and HB 302 must now be considered by the full House of Representatives. SB 97 and SB 76 await action in the full Senate.

On Wednesday, the House Agriculture Committee delayed action on HB 303, also sponsored by Jackson. The bill would affirm the state’s authority to regulate fertilizer and prohibit local governments from regulating the registration, packaging, labeling, sale, storage, distribution or use of fertilizer. The Senate bill, SB 83, is sponsored by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, and awaits action in that committee. AFF supports.

Senate debates bridge bill

The Alabama Senate adjourned Thursday without taking action on a $1 billion road and bridge bill.

Sponsored by Sen. Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, SB 121, would authorize $100 million a year for 10 years from the Alabama Trust Fund for road and bridge work. According to Barron, the bill would create 30,000 jobs while repairing or replacing substandard bridges that negatively impact commerce and school bus routes.

Opponents of the measure have filibustered this week, noting that the bill could eliminate any growth in the trust fund. The Alabama Trust Fund receives royalties for oil and gas exploration in Alabama. It has a current balance of about $2.5 billion.

Last year, Alabama Farmers Federation worked with the Association of County Commissioners to review and photograph hundreds of bridges across the state. The project is aimed at securing a $96 million federal grant to repair those structures. The U.S. Department of Transportation has set aside $1.5 billion for county bridge repairs and replacement as part of the federal stimulus package. AFF monitoring.

House committee approves bill to expand gambling

The House Tourism and Travel Committee passed a bill Wednesday that would allow state-regulated casinos to offer the same games as Indian casinos.

Sponsored by Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, HB 154 also shields cruise ship casinos from gambling raids. Gambling interests transported about 500 people to the State House in a caravan of buses Wednesday to bolster support for the bill.

Black told reporters he hopes the bill will be replaced by a constitutional amendment in November that would tax gambling and establish a gaming regulatory commission. Others, however, worry the bill bypasses the constitution by legalizing gambling without a vote of the people.

“The way this bill is written, any slot machine manufacturer with illegal machines already in Alabama can open up a tax-exempt casino anywhere in Alabama, whether or not they have a local amendment on bingo,” Rep. Barry Mask, R-Wetumpka, told the Montgomery Advertiser.

Gambling is illegal in Alabama, however, electronic gaming has been deemed legal in some areas based on a hodgepodge of local constitutional amendments authorizing a variety of so-called “bingo” games. Last year, gambling interests spent untold sums of money and called in country music celebrities in an attempt to pass gambling legislation. Although those efforts were unsuccessful, the gambling debate created a roadblock in the Legislature.

Alabama Farmers Federation opposes legalizing gambling in any form.

Bills In Brief

Mini-Trucks, HB 78 AND SB 165, sponsored by Rep. Spencer Collier, R-Irvington, and Sen. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill, would establish a license plate category for mini-trucks and exempt these vehicles from certificate of title requirements. The bill would allow mini-trucks to operate legally on all roads, excluding interstate highways. HB 78 passed the House of Representatives Thursday. SB 165 awaits action in the Senate Commerce, Transportation and Utilities Committee. AFF supports.

Copper Theft, HB 298 AND SB 297, sponsored by Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, and Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, would increase the penalties for the theft of copper and other metals. It also would allow the cost of repairing damage to the victim’s property to be considered in determining the severity of the offense. HB 298 passed the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. SB 297 awaits action in the Senate Finance and Taxation, General Fund Committee. AFF supports.

CockFighting, HB 342 and SB 124, sponsored by Rep. James Fields, D-Hanceville, and Sen. Myron Penn, D-Union Springs, would make it a 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. SB 124 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. HB 342 awaits action in the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee. AFF opposes cockfighting, but is monitoring the bill to make sure the bill does not negatively impact Alabama’s poultry industry.

Immigration - Dissolving Corporations, SB 38, sponsored by Sen. Hinton Mitchem, D-Union Grove, would allow the secretary of state to administratively dissolve a corporation when it has been convicted of violating federal law regarding employment of unauthorized aliens. The bill has been assigned to the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability Committee. AFF monitoring.

Immigration - State Contracts, SB 40, sponsored by Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, would require individuals and businesses on contract with the state to certify as a condition of the contract that they will not knowingly employ unauthorized aliens. The bill has been assigned to the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability Committee. AFF supports.

Timber Theft, HB 175 and SB 185, sponsored by Rep. Charles Newton, D-Greenville, and Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, would allow law enforcement officers to seize equipment in the possession of a person charged with a felony offense involving the theft of timber or lumber. HB 175 passed the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee Wednesday, and SB 185 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. AFF supports.

Timber Cutting and Weighing, HB 405 and SB 163, sponsored by Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, and Sen. Ted Little, D-Auburn, would make the unauthorized cutting, removal, transportation, sale or purchase of timber and forest products a Class A misdemeanor. The bill also would make it a crime to alter a weight measuring device used for forest products. HB 405 has been assigned to the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee. SB 163 passed the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee Wednesday. AFF supports.

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