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March 04, 2011   Email to Friend 

Budget cuts, new leadership priorities mark first week of session

The first week of the 2011 Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature was marked by sobering budget cuts by Gov. Robert Bentley and rapid action by the new Republican leadership to implement its “Handshake with Alabama.”

Bentley began the week by announcing 3 percent proration for this year’s education budget and 15 percent proration for the General Fund. On Tuesday, the state’s dire financial situation came into sharper focus when Bentley gave his state-of-the-state address.

“In the budget I am presenting, there will be sacrifices. There are losses. But it’s what we must do to maintain and sustain a budget that taxpayers can afford,” Bentley said.

Bentley’s budget proposal calls for cuts as deep as 45 percent over two years for some state agencies and the elimination of funding to dozens of tourist attractions. Under the plan, teachers and state employees also would pay more for their health insurance and retirement benefits.

Despite these cuts, Bentley said he would preserve funding for prisons, law enforcement and Medicaid. Overall, Bentley’s proposed budgets would increase spending on education from $5.3 billion this year to $5.5 billion, and General Fund spending would increase from $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion. About $300 million of the increase is needed to keep Medicaid services at current levels.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers, who now control both houses of the Legislature for the first time in 136 years, moved quickly to implement their “Handshake with Alabama.”

The Republican priorities from the 2010 campaign include: more control over spending; increasing state employees’ contributions to their benefits; tax breaks for businesses; photo identification for voting, and changes to state immigration laws.

Among the first bills to pass out of committee was HB 59, sponsored by Rep. Barry Mask, R-Tallassee, which would repeal the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP). Another centerpiece of the “Handshake” is HB 56, sponsored by Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, which would increase penalties for illegal immigrants and require employers to use the federal E-Verify program. A public hearing on the bill was held Wednesday, and the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee could vote on the measure as early as next week.

On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Education Committee passed HB 57, sponsored by Rep. Greg Canfield, R-Vestavia Hills. The bill would cap the increase in spending from the Education Trust Fund based, in part, on the average growth in trust fund tax collections over the previous 15 years.

In other action, the House Health Committee passed HB 60, sponsored by Rep. Blaine Galliher, R-Gadsden, which would amend the state constitution to prohibit mandatory participation in any health care system.

Parties differ on how to revise state constitution

Republican-supported bills that would rewrite the state constitution on an article-by-article basis are expected to finally pass this session after stalling in the Legislature for the past several years.

Meanwhile, Democrats announced plans Thursday to introduce a resolution that would allow voters to decide whether to hold a convention to rewrite Alabama’s constitution.

HB 20, sponsored by Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, passed the House Financial Services Committee Wednesday. The bill would revise the banking section of Alabama’s constitution without the need for a costly convention. The companion bill, SB 28 by Sen. Ben Brooks, R-Mobile, has been assigned to the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee.

DeMarco also has introduced HB 21, which would rewrite the article dealing with railroads and canals. It has been assigned to the House Transportation, Utilities and Infrastructure Committee. Similar bills, SB 23, SB 29 and SB 128, have been introduced by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, Brooks and Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, respectively.

Federation Assistant Director of Governmental and Agricultural Programs Brian Hardin said the renewed interest in the article-by-article bills may silence some of the arguments for a constitutional convention.

“These bills give the state an opportunity to revise and update the constitution without having to start from scratch and do away with more than 100 years of case law,” Hardin said. “The Federation has long supported the article-by-article approach because it addresses needed changes without the unnecessary expense associated with a convention.”

Any amendment to the constitution, including the article-by-article revisions, must be approved by a three-fifths majority in both houses of the Legislature. The amendments are then submitted to the people for adoption by a majority vote.

In addition to DeMarco’s bills, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, has introduced SB 112, which would delete provisions in the constitution related to segregation and poll taxes. These provisions had been previously nullified, but SB 112 would remove the language entirely. The bill has been assigned to the Senate Constitution, Campaign Finance, Ethics and Elections Committee.

The Democrats’ plan would call for a referendum in June 2012 on whether to hold a convention. If approved, the convention would convene in June 2013.

Budget cuts affect rural, agricultural programs

Programs for farmers and rural Alabama were not spared cuts in state budgets introduced this week.

The Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP), which helps secure federal funds for the expansion of on-farm irrigation, was reduced from $150,000 last year to $121,125. The Rural Medical Scholars Program at the University of Alabama was funded at $440,909, down from $454,545 last year.

Funding for the National Poultry Technology Center at Auburn University; fire ant research and eradication; CAFO registration fees; and the Farmers Market Authority were eliminated.

The Alabama Agricultural Land Grant Alliance (AALGA) was funded at $4,950,840, down from $6.2 million last year. This year, proposed funding for the Career Technology Initiative is $2.19 million, down from $2.26 million last year; however, the directive to provide support for vocational agricultural programs during summer months was removed.

The budgets of both the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries and Alabama Forestry Commission were cut by about 43 percent.

Bills in Brief

Forever Wild Reauthorization, SB 140 and HB 126, sponsored by Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, and Rep. Randy Davis, R-Daphne, would extend payments from the oil and gas trust fund to Forever Wild in its present form for 20 years. SB 140 has been assigned to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The House Economic Development and Tourism Committee will hold a public hearing on HB 126 Wednesday at 1:30 in State House Room 123. AFF has been a long-time supporter of Forever Wild. The Legislature does not have to act on reauthorization this year. Therefore, AFF believes it would be prudent for the newly elected Legislature to familiarize itself with the program and study the state’s conservation and financial needs rather than taking action this year.

Fertilizer Preemption, SB 123, sponsored by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, 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 bill has been assigned to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. AFF supports.

Farm-Raised Perch, SB 49 and HB 52, sponsored by Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Red Hill, and Rep. Wes Long, R-Guntersville, would allow perch raised in farm ponds to be sold, provided the seller is permitted by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. HB 52 is on the agenda of the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee next week. SB 49 has been assigned to the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. AFF supports.

Deer Hunting Season, SB 124, sponsored by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, would extend the hunting season for whitetail deer by two weeks at the beginning of regular gun season and two weeks at the close of the season. The bill also changes rules related to the feeding of deer. It has been assigned to the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. AFF supports.

Cap-And-Trade Regulations, HB 68, sponsored by Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, would exempt any activity involved with the production of a product manufactured and retained within the borders of Alabama from federal cap-and-trade regulations. The bill has been assigned to the House Commerce and Small Business Committee. AFF supports.

Landowner Liability, SB 84, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, would limit the liability of landowners who lease property for hunting and fishing. The bill has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. AFF supports.

Agritourism Liability, SB 85, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, would limit the liability of agritourism operators and require agritourism attractions to post certain warning notices at the entrance to the activity. The bill has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. AFF supports.

Carrier of Last Resort, SB 87 and HB 113, sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, would add certain exceptions to the obligation of the carrier of last resort to provide basic telephone service to the premises of a permanent residence within the franchised service territory of an incumbent local exchange carrier. SB 87 has been assigned to the Senate Commerce, Transportation and Utilities Committee, and HB 113 has been assigned to the House Transportation, Utilities and Infrastructure Committee. AFF monitoring.

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