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February 08, 2010   Email to Friend 

Lawmakers debate options for revising Alabama’s 1901 Constitution

Efforts to revise Alabama’s constitution are once again under way in the Alabama Legislature. A bill calling for a constitutional convention has passed a Senate committee, and joint resolutions on holding a convention have been introduced in both houses.

SB 177 and HB 502 sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham and Speaker Pro Tem Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham call for a statewide referendum in June of this year on whether the state should hold a convention to rewrite the 1901 Constitution. If approved by voters, 210 delegates – 2 from each House of Representatives District – would be elected in November. SB 177 passed the Constitution, Campaign Finance, Ethics and Elections Committee.

Joint resolutions also have been introduced in both chambers that would call a constitutional convention in October 2012, with elections of delegates held in June of that year. HJR 54 is sponsored by Rep. Demetrius Newton, D-Birmingham, and SJR 42 is sponsored by Sen. Ted Little, D-Auburn. Both resolutions are pending action in the Rules Committees of their respective houses.

Meanwhile, Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, has introduced two bills that would revise the constitution using the article-by-article approach. HB 434 would revise the railroad article, and HB 435 would revise the banking section. Both bills passed the House Constitution and Elections Committee on Wednesday. The committee, however, delayed action on HB 201, sponsored by Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison. The bill would allow constitutional amendments to be proposed by an initiative and referendum process. Alabama Farmers Federation favors the article-by-article approach to revising the constitution. A convention would be extremely costly and would likely be composed of only those delegates with the financial freedom to spend weeks and months away from their jobs. Proponents of a constitutional convention have consistently indicated that their main objectives for such a draconian overhaul of state law are to change property tax laws and expand home rule.

Ironically, any convention that resulted in a plan to raise taxes or make other substantial changes to the constitution would likely face strong opposition from voters. Since any new constitution would have to be approved by voters in a simple “yes” or “no” referendum, the entire, costly convention process could be nullified. The article-by-article approach, however, allows for debate during the regular legislative session with individual statewide votes on each article.

Legislators offer host of coastal insurance bills

Lawmakers from Baldwin and Mobile counties have introduced more than a dozen bills this session related to homeowners’ insurance in the coastal regions of Alabama. The Federation is monitoring these bills to ensure efforts to address the affordability of insurance in coastal counties do not result in higher costs for policyholders in those two counties or throughout the state. The organization believes the best way to address coastal insurance issues is a market-driven approach that encourages competition and mitigates risk for both the policyholder and the insurer.

SB 10 and HB 220, sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, and Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Bay Minette, would encourage competition by eliminating a rule requiring surplus-line insurers to do business five years in Alabama before writing certain business. Both bills have passed the Banking and Insurance Committees of their respective houses. AFF supports. HB 219, also sponsored by McMillan, cleared the House Banking and Insurance Committee. It would allow the Insurance Department to establish nonbinding alternative dispute resolution procedures for certain insurance claims. AFF supports.

Meanwhile, the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee delayed action last week on a policyholder bill of rights. SB 264 and HB 445, sponsored by Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, and Rep. James Buskey, D-Mobile, have the potential to increase costs for policyholders and encourage unnecessary litigation. AFF opposes as currently written. SB 5, sponsored by Sen. Ben Brooks, R-Mobile, would require hurricane deductibles to only be used for named storms. This measure limits the ability of policyholders to manage their premium costs by sharing in the risk with their insurance company. AFF opposes.

Brooks also has introduced SB 197 that would change the process that allows insurers to reduce or eliminate their assessments to the Alabama Insurance Underwriting Association or beach pool. The change, which is called a “zone-by-zone” approach, would require companies to write business in coastal zones closer to the beach in order to write themselves out of the pool. This approach would likely discourage insurers from continuing to write the same number of policies farther inland. AFF opposes.

Three other bills also have the potential of raising premium costs by forcing insurers to increase paperwork, increase litigation exposure and disclose proprietary information. SB 199 by Brooks would require companies to provide a breakdown of coverage charges in a way in which companies do not rate policies; SB 200 by Brooks would require insurers to make rate filings and actuarial opinions public information without any proprietary information exception as seen in many states; and SB 208 by Pittman would require itemized disclosure of discounts, which already occurs, making the bill unnecessary. AFF opposes these three bills.

Agricultural programs cut as state faces budget woes

Programs important to Alabama farmers were drastically cut in the budgets proposed by Gov. Bob Riley.

In the General Fund budget, funding for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management that is used to reimburse farmers for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation fees was cut from $350,000 to $315,000. In addition, state matching funds for the Agriculture Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) were eliminated. The state allocation helps Alabama secure federal funds for the expansion of on-farm irrigation. Last year, the state budgeted $200,000 for the program. The budget for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries was cut by 15 percent, including the elimination of funds for the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program and the state climatologist. The Farmers Market Authority was cut by 29 percent, and the Soil and Water Conservation Committee was cut by 59 percent.

Agriculture also faced cuts in the Education Trust Fund budget. The Career Tech Initiative was cut by $1 million, or 44 percent. Meanwhile, funding for fire ant research and eradication was zeroed out, and the appropriation for the Alabama Agricultural Land Grant Alliance (AALGA) was reduced by 17 percent, or almost $1 million.

Bills introduced to make gambling illegal in Alabama

Republican senators this week countered attempts to expand electronic gaming in Alabama by introducing legislation that would make all games of chance illegal and levy steep penalties on those breaking the law.

SB 333, sponsored by Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, is a proposed constitutional amendment specifying that the Legislature has no power to authorize any gambling activity including lotteries, gift enterprises, bingo or other games of chance. It also would repeal 19 constitutional amendments that currently allow certain types of gaming.

The measure defines “game of chance” and provides that any proposed constitutional amendment authorizing any gambling activity would be subject to a statewide vote.

SB 334, also sponsored by Beason, would provide civil monetary penalties for illegal gambling activities. The bill would impose a civil fine of not less than $1,000 per day, per illegal gambling device and would call for the forfeiture of all profits resulting from illegal gambling. The civil penalties also would include the forfeiture of any property used in connection with an illegal gambling device. Both SB 333 and SB 334 have been assigned to the Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee. Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, has introduced HB 299, which is a companion to SB 334. It has been assigned to the House Tourism and Travel Committee.

Alabama Farmers Federation opposes legalizing gambling in any form.

Bills In Brief

Landowner Liability, HB 473, sponsored by Rep. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, would limit the liability of landowners who lease property for hunting and fishing. The bill has been assigned to the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee. 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 passed the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee Wednesday. SB 163 awaits action by the full Senate. AFF supports.

Trails Commission, HB 376 and SB 258, sponsored by Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne would create the Alabama Trails Commission to advance development, interconnection and use of cultural, historic and recreational lands and water trails. The advisory board for the commission would include an appointment by the Alabama Farmers Federation. HB 376 has been assigned to the House Tourism and Travel Committee. AFF monitoring.

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 and SB 165 passed the Senate Commerce, Transportation and Utilities Committee Thursday. AFF supports.

Energy Committee, HB 128 and SB 252, sponsored by Rep. Greg Wren, R-Montgomery, and Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, would make the Joint Legislative Committee on Energy Policy a permanent committee and would provide for the hiring of staff and creation of the Legislative Energy Office to administer the duties of the committee. Both bills have passed the Energy and Natural Resources Committees of their respective houses. AFF supports.

Forest Arson, HB 301 and SB 150, sponsored by Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, and Sen. Rusty Glover, R-Semmes, would make it a crime to attempt to burn or set fires in a forest not under the control of that person. It also would clarify existing law making it a crime to possess incendiary paraphernalia for the purpose of setting fire in a forest and would make it a crime to start a fire with reckless disregard for safety. SB 150 has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, and HB 301 has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee. AFF supports.

Hunting Land Replacement, HB 330, sponsored by Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, would require the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to find replacement acreage for hunting lands when existing hunting lands owned or managed by the department are closed. This would ensure no net loss of land acreage available for hunting. The bill passed the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee Wednesday. AFF monitoring.

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