The Alabama Legislature convened on Feb. 1, with one of its top priorities that of filling an estimated $350 to $400 million shortfall in the state’s general fund budget, including an estimated $160 million needed to keep Medicaid solvent.

The projected shortfall is likely to provide momentum for tax increases that lawmakers had been reluctant to consider following voters’ overwhelming defeat of Amendment 2 in 2003, says Freddie Patterson, governmental affairs director for the Alabama Farmers Federation.

“There is strong bipartisan support for funding Medicaid, and state agencies already are saying they can’t tolerate further spending cuts,” says Patterson. “As a result, legislators will be looking for ways to increase revenue that don’t require a vote of the people. Although some accountability measures have been implemented, the legislature has not addressed the need to base budgets on actual revenues. Until that happens, the Federation will continue to oppose any effort to raise taxes.”

One way some lawmakers have tried to raise revenue in the past has been through the elimination of sales tax exclusions on agricultural input items, he says.

Patterson says the Federation will work to protect those exemptions during the current legislative session. In addition, the Federation will work with lawmakers to make sure fast-growing agricultural sectors like the greenhouse, nursery and sod industries are given the same tax incentives granted to other businesses that enhance economic development.

In the budgeting process, the Federation will support funding of permitting fees for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as well as funding for the Alabama Agricultural Land Grant Alliance (AALGA), he says.

The Federation also will continue to support legislation that protects family farms from frivolous lawsuits and the adverse effects of land use planning and zoning, says Patterson. The Federation board of directors, however, has agreed to support a limited home rule bill that was introduced during the last legislative session.

This bill would allow counties to dispose of waste and manage local water and sewer systems. It would not give local governments any additional authority to raise taxes or implement zoning and land-use planning.

Patterson says this is a reasonable home rule bill that allows counties to do things they should have the authority to do, but it leaves those powers normally held by the state in the hands of state government. Issues like health care and environmental management, he adds, are better regulated by one state agency than by 67 county agencies.

“The Federation’s current policy says the state should not relinquish its power to county governments. If this bill is changed in any way, we will vigorously oppose it.”

The Federation also will monitor any effort to rewrite the state’s constitution, says Patterson. Current Federation policy supports a recompilation of the constitution to remove obsolete language and states that any revision should be done on an article-by-article basis.

Meanwhile, the Federation will work with business and industry leaders to clarify the qualifications for individuals who serve on the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) Commission. In addition, Federation Agricultural Legislation Director Paul Pinyan says the organization will monitor a proposed “tipping” fee, which could provide the financially strapped department with additional revenue by charging waste management companies a fee for using landfills.

“Our goal is to insure that Alabama has a well-balanced, scientifically based environmental management program that will keep control of the state’s environmental policy in Alabama rather than having it taken over by the Environmental Protection Agency,” says Pinyan.

The Federation also will work with lawmakers during the current session to update regulations governing the weights and widths of farm equipment that can be transported on roads and highways. Pinyan notes that, as farm equipment has gotten larger, some multi-row machines no longer fit the guidelines set out in state law. The Federation, he adds, will be working to craft legislation that will protect public safety while giving farmers the freedom to move their equipment from one field to another.

Other agricultural bills supported by the Federation include legislation to standardize Alabama’s catfish weighing practices with those of other states. The Federation also will monitor proposals to register all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). Earlier this year, the Federation’s county leadership expressed an interest in reducing the theft of ATVs and the incidence of trespassing by riders.

Bills dealing with water use, dam safety and the production of alternative fuels are expected to be introduced during the legislative session. Patterson says the Federation will work to insure that agriculture is given the second-highest priority in any water use allocation, behind drinking water.

Legislation promoting the development of biodiesel or ethanol production in Alabama will be evaluated to make sure it provides incentives for farmers. Additionally, Patterson says the Federation will continue to support bills that promote Alabama-grown products and county-of-origin labeling on food.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com