The Alabama Farmers Federation is fairly sure that tax increases will be introduced during the current session of the state's legislature. What isn't known is who will introduce them and how big the proposed increases will be.

Warding off tax increases will be one of the key issues for Federation lobbyists this year, and the increases could be disguised in many forms, says Freddie Patterson, director of governmental affairs for the Alabama farmers federation.

Gov. Bob Riley already has indicated that he is likely to propose an accountability package that he says won't have revenue increases associated with it, says Patterson.

“We agree with that concept, and our approach will be to support real accountability — namely the way that revenue is projected and the way budgets are formulated based on those projections,” he says.

Legislators already have lined up to introduce tax increases, says Patterson, including property tax millage increases, reductions in sales tax exemptions, and changes in Alabama's property tax classification system.

“Voters made it very clear last September when they overwhelmingly defeated Amendment 1,” he says. “Voters said they don't want to pay more taxes. I think if the voters were convinced that their current tax dollars are being spent wisely, then — and only then — would they consider a tax increase.”

One of the first issues legislators are scheduled to address is the state budget for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, 2004. Gov. Riley has said the state's bleak financial picture and rising costs of health care and pensions could cause some state programs to be cut by 50 percent.

House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, says the legislature will address the revenue shortfall, adding that he hopes it will be in concert with the governor. However, if the governor doesn't come up with a plan, he expects legislators to step into a leadership position on taxes.

Hammett says it will take $400 million in new money to maintain state programs and public education.

In addition to opposing tax increases, Patterson says the Farmers Federation will push for other legislation that will benefit farmers.

The Family Farm Preservation Act is expected to be introduced again in the current session. If adopted, it will keep a farming operation — abiding by current rules and regulations — from being declared a public nuisance. The proposed act also would stipulate that any person or group that sues a farmer — who is abiding by current rules and regulations for public nuisance and loses — must pay the farmer's attorney's fees and any expenses associated with the case.

Federation lobbyists also will examine weight and width restrictions on farm equipment operated on public roads. According to Patterson, some equipment manufacturers are making equipment that exceeds limits for weight and width regulations.

A drought management plan that could include possible permitting for farmers also is being considered during the legislative session. The Federation, says Patterson, will be closely monitoring regulatory functions of the Office of Water Resources, a division of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, as well as regulations and funding for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management where it pertains to farm and rural issues.

Constitutional revision also is likely to be proposed again this year, and the Federation will continue its efforts to preserve current constitutional protections, including current use and property classifications.

Other items the Federation will be monitoring include rural economic development, hazardous materials regulations and enforcement, worker compensation laws, revenue department functions, the Alabama Insurance Department and health services funding and regulation.

“In regards to insurance legislation, we will seek to protect insurance premium tax credits and liability limits and prevent any increases in licenses and fees that affect the insurance industry and Alfa customers,” says Patterson.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com