Forever Wild reauthorization bill passes House with amendments
A bill to reauthorize Forever Wild a year early and earmark up to $300 million over the next 20 years to the program passed the House of Representatives Thursday by a vote of 69-24.
The bill was amended to require more transparency by the Forever Wild board, encourage a more strategic approach to land preservation, and discourage the purchase of farmland or the use of leases. HB 126, sponsored by Rep. Randy Davis, R-Daphne, will now go to a Senate committee for consideration. The companion bill, SB 140, sponsored by Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, awaits action by the full Senate.
“We appreciate the legislators who opposed bringing this bill up for a vote before the program could be properly evaluated and those who offered amendments to protect the interests of Alabama farmers and citizens,” said Brian Hardin, assistant director of the Department of Governmental and Agricultural Programs for the Alabama Farmers Federation.
Federation members are urged to contact their senators and ask them to support a study of Forever Wild.
Forever Wild uses 10 percent of the investment income from the state’s oil and gas trust fund to preserve land for recreation. Since 1992, the program has spent about $160 million to preserve more than 220,000 acres. The Federation supports Forever Wild but believes it is wise to study the program and develop goals and priorities for its future, especially with the state in such dire financial straits.
The Federation supports a joint resolution calling for a committee to study Forever Wild and make recommendations to the Legislature. HJR 89 is sponsored by Rep. Mike Hill, R-Columbiana, and SJR 42 is sponsored by Sen. Paul Sanford, R-Huntsville. Since funding for Forever Wild would not change until Oct. 1, 2012, the Legislature could still act on the committee’s recommendations next year. Meanwhile, Forever Wild would retain about $24 million in its stewardship fund for the maintenance of existing lands and would continue to receive 2.5 percent of the investment income from the trust fund, regardless of whether the Legislature acts on reauthorization.
On Thursday, Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, amended HB 126 to urge the Forever Wild board to put a low priority on leased land. About one-third of the land preserved by Forever Wild, to date, is in a long-term lease where the state holds neither the timber nor mineral rights.
Rep. Phil Williams, R-Huntsville, amended the bill to urge the board to develop a strategic plan for future land purchases in five-year increments. Another amendment, by Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre, urges the board not to approve the purchase of land where more than 10 percent of the acreage is cropland or pastureland.
The “urged” language was used in all three amendments based on an opinion by the Legislative Reference Service that any new mandates would require a constitutional amendment.
A fourth amendment, by Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, requires the minutes of Forever Wild board meetings to be posted online within five business days. Reps. Ken Johnson, R-Moulton, Wes Long, R-Guntersville, and April Weaver, R-Brierfield, offered amendments that were not adopted.
Prior to taking a vote on Forever Wild, legislators first had to approve a Budget Isolation Resolution (BIR) to place it ahead of the state budgets. The BIR requires a three-fifths vote. Prior to consideration of HB 126, the BIR passed by a vote of 59-23. Republicans voting “no” on the BIR were: Reps. Boman, Boothe, Bridges, Chesteen, Clouse, Farley, Greer, Henry, K. Johnson, Jones, Lee, Long, Payne and D. Williams. Democrats voting “no” were: Reps. Buskey, Ford, Givan, Holmes, Laird, Lindsey, McAdory, McClammy and Morrow.
Republicans voting “yes” on the BIR were: Reps. Baker, Ball, Barton, Baughn, Beckman, Brown, Buttram, Canfield, Collins, Davis, DeMarco, Faust, Fincher, Galliher, Gaston, Greeson, Hammon, Hill, M. Hubbard, Hurst, Ison, R. Johnson, W. Johnson, Love, Mask, McClendon, McClurkin, McCutcheon, McMillan, Merrill, Nordgren, Oden, Poole, Rich, Sanderford, Shiver, Thomas, Treadaway, Tuggle, Wallace and J. Williams.
Democrats voting “yes” were: Reps. Black, Bracy, Colston, England, Forte, Hall, Harper, Howard, Knight, Melton, M. Moore, C. Newton, J. Robinson, O. Robinson, Rogers, Scott, Todd and Warren.
Republicans voting against final passage were: Reps. Boothe, Bridges, Chesteen, Clouse, Farley, Greer, Henry, K. Johnson, Jones, Lee, Long, B. Moore, Roberts, Vance, D. Williams, P. Williams and Wood. Democrats voting against final passage were: Reps. Givan, Holmes, Howard, Laird, Lindsey, McClammy and Morrow.
Republicans voting for final passage were: Reps. Baker, Ball, Barton, Baughn, Beckman, Brown, Buttram, Canfield, Collins, Davis, DeMarco, Faust, Fincher, Galliher, Gaston, Greeson, Hammon, Hill, M. Hubbard, Hurst, Ison, R. Johnson, W. Johnson, Love, Mask, McClendon, McClurkin, McCutcheon, McMillan, Merrill, Millican, Nordgren, Oden, Patterson, Payne, Poole, Rich, Sanderford, Shiver, Thomas, Treadaway, Tuggle, Wallace and Wren.
Democrats voting for final passage were: Reps. Beech, Black, Boyd, Bracy, Burdine, Buskey, Coleman, Colston, Ford, Forte, Grimsley, Hall, Harper, Kennedy, Knight, McAdory, Melton, M. Moore, C. Newton, J. Robinson, O. Robinson, Rogers, Scott, Todd and Warren.
Budgets include cuts for state agencies despite overall increase in spending
The Alabama House of Representatives passed a $5.59 billion Education Trust Fund budget Tuesday that increases state spending for education by $240 million.
This increase will not make up for the loss of $462.5 million in federal stimulus money that supplemented state spending this year. The House-approved education budget would spend $92.3 million more than Gov. Robert Bentley proposed. The plan would cut how much the state pays toward the health care for education employees and retirees by 5 percent next year, which would save about $35 million.
The House version of the budget includes $2.4 million for the Career Technology Initiative, up $219,000 from the governor’s proposal. It also includes about $441,000 for the Rural Medical Scholars Program as recommended by the governor. The Alabama Agricultural Land Grant Alliance (AALGA) was funded at $4.9 million, which matches the governor’s proposal but represents a 17 percent cut from the fiscal year 2011 budget.
The House restored $716,000 for Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) and about $805,000 for Soil and Water Conservation. Both were zeroed in the governor’s proposal.
The Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station was funded at $31.2 million, a slight increase from the fiscal year 2011 budget, but allocations for fire ant research, poultry research and the poultry technology center were eliminated. The House approved about $32.5 million for the Cooperative Extension System, an increase of 4 percent from this year’s budget.
Last week, the Senate approved a $1.76 billion general fund budget, an increase of $177.5 million or 11.2 percent from this year’s prorated level. The budget includes a $263 million windfall from the oil and gas trust fund based on a ruling by the attorney general’s office that past transfers from the fund had been miscalculated.
The Senate-approved budget increases funding for Medicaid and protects spending for state prisons and mental health, but cuts some state agencies by as much as 45 percent.
The general fund budget passed by the Senate includes $10.4 million for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, which is almost $2 million more than the governor proposed but almost $5 million less than was budgeted this year.
The Alabama Forestry Commission was funded at $9.8 million, up $2.1 million from the governor’s proposal but down $3.6 million from this year’s budget. The Senate also restored almost $288,000 for the Farmers Market Authority, which was zeroed in the governor’s budget. This represents a 45 percent cut from the fiscal year 2011 budget. The governor had also zeroed an allocation to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to offset registration fees for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The Senate restored about $152,000 for the program, a cut of 45 percent from this year’s budget.
Bills in Brief
Fertilizer Preemption, SB 123 and HB 198, sponsored by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, and Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, 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. SB 123 passed the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee Wednesday. It now goes to the full House for final consideration. HB 198 passed the House on April 7 and has been assigned to the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. AFF supports.
Agritourism Signage, SB 153 and HB 188, sponsored by Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Red Hill, and Rep. Elwyn Thomas, R-Oneonta, would give the Department of Agriculture and Industries authority to approve roadside signage for agritourism operations. HB 188 passed the full House Thursday, as amended. SB 153 awaits action by the full Senate. AFF supports.
Garrett Coliseum, HB 486, sponsored by Rep. Joe Hubbard, D-Montgomery, would change the Alabama Agricultural Center Corporation board of directors, which oversees Garrett Coliseum in Montgomery. It would add the chair of the Montgomery County Commission, the president of the Montgomery City Council and the mayor of Montgomery to the board. It also would authorize the corporation to issue bonds for the upkeep and renovation of the coliseum. The coliseum hosts livestock shows and other agricultural events. State funding for the complex was eliminated in the Senate-approved general fund budget. The bill passed the House State Government Committee on Thursday. AFF monitoring.
Immigration Reform, HB 56, sponsored by Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, would create specific crimes related to illegal aliens and would require verification of the legal status by employers. HB 56 passed the House on April 5. SB 256, sponsored by Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, also includes extensive immigration reforms but uses identification cards rather than an electronic system to verify the legal status of workers. The bill passed the Senate Job Creation and Economic Development Committee on April 7. AFF opposes both bills as written.
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 was amended in a way that leaves the owner’s responsibility for injury open to interpretation. SB 84 awaits action by the full Senate. AFF opposes as amended.
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. It also was amended in committee in a way that weakens the protection for farmers. SB 85 awaits action in the full Senate. AFF opposes as amended.
HEALTH INSURANCE DEDUCTION, SB 159 and HB 61, sponsored by Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, and Rep. April Weaver, R-Brierfield, would allow employers with fewer than 25 employees to deduct 100 percent of amounts paid for health insurance premiums from their Alabama gross income. HB 61 passed the Senate Thursday and now goes to the governor for his signature. AFF supports.