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May 27, 2010   Email to Friend 

Alabama Farmers Fare Well In 2010 Legislative Session
By Jeff Helms

For Alabama agriculture, the 2010 session of the state legislature was one of the most productive in recent history, as farmers celebrated passage of bills that save money and provide their families with added peace of mind.

Topping the list of accomplishments for the Alabama Farmers Federation was passage of the Family Farm Preservation Act. The measure prevents law-abiding farms from being declared a public nuisance. Sponsored by Sen. Kim Benefield, D-Woodland, and steered through the House of Representatives by Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the new law helps safeguard farmers from costly lawsuits brought by those who don't understand production agriculture.

The Federation has sought passage of the Family Farm Preservation Act for 10 years, but those efforts have been derailed by trial lawyers and those opposed to the expansion of large pork farms. These concerns were addressed by restating the judge's discretion to require the plaintiff to pay the farmer's legal fees, if the lawsuit is frivolous, and by excluding new and expanding swine CAFOs from the law.

Federation President Jerry Newby credited the organization's members and staff for passage of the Family Farm Preservation Act and other important legislation.

"The success we had during this legislative session is a direct result of the hard work of our Federation members," Newby said. "We appreciate everyone who made a phone call, sent an email or traveled to Montgomery to support one of these bills. That direct contact with legislators made all the difference.

"Our employees have done a great job of cultivating relationships with other agricultural groups as well as elected officials," Newby said. "We need to work with our friends when we agree on the issues, and that cooperation paid dividends this year."

Another highlight of the session was passage of a bill that ensures livestock care regulations are uniform throughout the state by preventing local and county governments from establishing a patchwork of laws. Sponsored by Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D-Luverne, and Rep. Ralph Howard, D-Greensboro, the new law updates the state veterinarian's responsibilities to include livestock care and disease control. It also strengthens penalties for animal cruelty.

Reducing paperwork is the aim of a new law supported by owners of bird-hunting preserves. Sponsored by Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, and Rep. Thomas E. Jackson, D-Thomasville, the measure allows bird-hunting preserves to purchase an annual license for $500 to cover hunters on the property who do not already have the appropriate license.

The legislative session also was successful for forest owners. The Legislature passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Rusty Glover, R-Semmes, and Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, that increases penalties for forest arson as well as a bill sponsored by Sen. Mitchell and Rep. Charles Newton, D-Greenville, that allows law enforcement officers to seize equipment in the possession of a person charged with timber theft. It also approved a bill by Sen. Ted Little, D-Auburn, and Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes, that makes it a crime to cut timber without permission or to alter a timber-weighing device.

Copper thieves will face heavier penalties, following passage of a bill sponsored by Sen. Bedford and Rep. Wood. The new law allows the cost of repairing damage to the victim's property to be considered when determining the severity of the crime.

For insurance policyholders, the only notable bill to pass was a measure by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, and Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Bay Minette, which eliminates a rule requiring surplus-line insurers to do business five years in Alabama before writing certain business. The new law is aimed at increasing competition among insurers in the coastal regions of the state in order to hold down premium costs.

Efforts to call a convention to rewrite Alabama's constitution failed to get traction this session. Bills that would have rewritten the railroad and banking portions of the constitution using the article-by-article approach also failed.

Despite tight budgets, agricultural programs fared well in the state budgets. Funding for the Career Technology Initiative remained unchanged at $2.26 million, and the appropriation for the Alabama Agricultural Land Grant Alliance increased 11 percent to $6.2 million. Fire ant research and eradication again received $147,073, and the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station's poultry technology center received a new appropriation of $250,000.

In the general fund budget, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management was allocated $277,200 to reimburse farmers for CAFO registration fees, and the Agriculture Water Enhancement Program received $150,000 in state matching funds to help expand on-farm irrigation. Overall, the Department of Agriculture and Industries budget was cut 11 percent; the Farmers Market Authority, 29 percent; the Soil and Water Conservation Committee, 2 percent; and the Alabama Forestry Commission, 6 percent.

The Legislature also passed a bill to provide $800,000 a year through 2041 to service a bond issue for the renovation of the Garrett Coliseum complex in Montgomery. The facility houses numerous livestock shows and other events. The bill was sponsored by Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery.

The biggest headlines during the legislative session were reserved for a bill that would have legalized electronic bingo. Early in the session, the Senate rejected a version of the bill that would have given a monopoly to 10 gambling locations in the state. Later, the Senate passed a shorter version of the bill that would have legalized electronic gambling without restriction. But proponents couldn't muster the votes needed to pass the measure in the House.

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