Farm group leaders in the lower Southeast are claiming victories during state legislative sessions this year despite the constraints placed on lawmakers by budget shortfalls in every state.

In Alabama, a catfish labeling bill — HB 473 — passed easily and has been signed into law by Gov. Bob Riley. In recent years, imported catfish from Vietnam and China has flooded the U.S. market despite repeatedly testing positive for chemicals and antibiotics banned in this country.

The passage of the bill is being hailed as a victory for Alabama catfish farmers by Alabama Farmers Federation Catfish Division Director Mitt Walker.

The new labeling requirements take effect in August. The Alabama Department of Public Health, which is charged with enforcing the labeling standards, will develop rules related to the new law and will likely request comments from the public. To make compliance easier and less costly, Alabama Catfish Producers has agreed to provide free signs, menu stickers and table tents to restaurants serving U.S. farm-raised catfish. Alabama is the nation’s second-largest producer of farm-raised catfish.

A bill also was approved in Alabama that will allow a vote on a constitutional amendment creating a propane checkoff. Propane purchases for agriculture would be exempt from the checkoff. A resolution also was adopted calling for the establishment of a state repository for water resource data.

Meanwhile in Georgia, Farm Bureau officials there are saying the 2009 session of the state’s General Assembly was a good one for agriculture. Of special interest was HB 529, an agriculture-friendly bill that passed with only 15 minutes left in the session.

As passed, HB 529 has two components. Section one prohibits local governments from passing laws regulating practices on the farm. There is specific wording to state that zoning ordinances and zoning decisions are not superseded by the bill. Finally, there is language to make it clear that HB 529 does not overrule a local government’s efforts “regulating land application of human waste.”

Section two pertains to limiting the liability of landowners who charge admission for persons 18 years of age or older to participate in agritourism or hunting and fishing activities. Landowners are concerned with the liability they might face if paying customers are harmed as a result of inherent risks associated with the activity they’re paying to experience. In order to qualify for the limited liability, landowners must not be found negligent. Second, they must post specifically worded signs as outlined in the legislation. Finally, visitors must sign a waiver with the same language.

HB 529 also includes a very important provision that no new liabilities are created as a result of the legislation. In other words, if landowners choose not to seek the new liability protection and decide not to post notices and have waivers signed, the new law “shall not create any new cause of action against a property owner of additional liability to property owners.”

Another last-minute bill followed by Farm Bureau members was SB 82. The bill seeks to combat the problem of metal theft by tightening regulations related to the purchase of scrap metal. The bill requires that a photo ID must be presented when selling scrap metal and the recycler must retain a photocopy of the ID. For aluminum forms and copper items, cash payments can only be made after a 24-hour wait. SB 82 also allows for prosecutors to consider the value of the stolen property in its undamaged condition rather than just its value as scrap.

Other Georgia legislation of interest includes the following:

• HB 46 — Off Road Diesel Fuel Sales Tax Suspension: This bill formally ratifies the governor’s suspension of the sales tax on off-road fuel which became effective last May. However, the suspension is about to expire, depending on when the governor signs the bill. The bill was amended to end the suspension at the end of the month in which the bill is signed, but no later than May 31, 2009.

• HB 143 — Homeowner Tax Relief Grants: This bill was passed and signed into law earlier in the session and provides that the grants will be sent to counties for the 2008 tax year, but the program will be revenue based in future years.

• SB 43 — Boll Weevil Eradication Program: This bill pertains to the Boll Weevil Eradication Program (BWEP) and provides the collection mechanism for farmer assessments if those assessments are changed from the current per acre basis to a per bale basis. SB 43 does not require changing the basis of the assessment, but recent changes in Farm Service Agency (FSA) procedures increase the likelihood of a per-bale assessment.

• SB 55 — Fair Market Value & Ad Valorem Taxation: This legislation adds foreclosures, net taxable value declarations from real estate transfers, and decreased value from conservation easements into the criteria for tax assessors to consider for fair market value property assessments. It also extends the signup deadline for the Forest Land Protection Act from April 1 to June 1.

• SB 80 — Food Safety: The bill sets additional testing requirements for food processing plants and requires that if contamination is detected, the processor must report it to the Georgia Department of Agriculture within 24 hours. It also allows for processors to submit a “food safety plan” to the commissioner of agriculture for approval to enhance food safety.

• SB 128 — Permanent Trailer Plates: This bill allows owners of livestock & utility trailers to purchase a permanent license plate and registration for a one-time fee of $48 in lieu of an annual renewal.

• SB 152 — Ornamental Plants Commodity Commission: Establishes an agricultural commodity commission for ornamental plants grown in nurseries for ornamental or landscape plantings. It’s now up to growers to determine by referendum whether they want such a commission.

• HR 471 & SR 433 — Oppose Clean Water Act Expansion: These similar resolutions urge Congress to oppose expansion of the federal Clean Water Act. Farm Bureau contends such an expansion would grant the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction over all waters within the states as well as all activities affecting these waters, public and private. As urging resolutions, they have no force of law, but rather express the will of the Georgia General Assembly to the Georgia Congressional delegation.

• HR 583 — Horse Transportation & Processing: This resolution urges Congress to oppose federal legislation that would interfere with a state's authority to regulate the transportation and humane processing of horses.

• SR 667 — Diesel Engines: This resolution creates a Senate study committee to evaluate the impacts and feasibility of retrofitting diesel engines. Georgia Farm Bureau is one of several organizations that have been named as members of the study committee.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com