Leaders in the Alabama Legislature predicted tight budgets and immigration would be among the most pressing issues for the upcoming regular session when they gathered in Birmingham to learn more about agriculture and insurance at the 2011 Alfa Symposium.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he is more encouraged about the education budget after meeting with the Finance Department, but added that the state’s General Fund budget could face proration as high as 15 percent. Despite this challenge, Marsh said he is interested in learning more about what can be done to strengthen Alabama agriculture.

“As you know, we have fewer farmers in the state than ever, and we’ve got to make sure they are protected,” Marsh said. “We have a good agricultural base, and we want to do everything we can to help those individuals.”

The symposium was a joint effort of the Alabama Farmers Federation and Alfa Insurance. It gave the staff a chance to meet with the leadership of the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as the agriculture and insurance committees in both chambers, to discuss issues that affect members and policyholders.

Brian Hardin, assistant director of the Federation’s Governmental and Agricultural Programs Department, said the meeting was especially valuable following the Nov. 2 general election, which brought sweeping changes to the Alabama Legislature.

“There are a lot of new legislators who we haven’t had the opportunity to talk to about our issues to the extent we would like,” Hardin said. “This symposium is a chance to discuss the issues we anticipate we will be facing not only this year, but in the next few years.”

Agricultural issues

Agricultural issues discussed at the symposium included restrictions on advertising agri-tourism attractions along roadways; a bill that would affirm the state’s authority to regulate fertilizer; reauthorization of Forever Wild; the economic outlook for Alabama’s forest industry; regulation of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations; livestock care; and farm labor and immigration. Representatives from Alfa Insurance and the Property and Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI) also briefed lawmakers on the coastal insurance situation and other legislation that could impact policyholders.

Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Chairman Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, said he hopes to strengthen Alabama’s right-to-farm laws and use his committee as a “bully pulpit” to influence Congress on issues that are important to Alabama farmers.

“Growing up on a dairy farm where we milked cows up until 1991 or 1992 — milking right at 500 head a day — I have farmers’ interests at heart, and I know what it takes to be a farmer and be involved in agribusiness,” said Whatley, whose father Charles chaired the House Agriculture Committee in the late 1970s. “I know how hard you work, and I want to do whatever I can to help the farmer to help the agribusiness.”

More than 25 members of the Alabama Legislature attended the Alfa Symposium as well as Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries John McMillan and the deans of Alabama’s three land grant universities.

In his opening remarks, Federation and Alfa President Jerry Newby praised the lawmakers for accepting the challenge to govern during tough economic times and for passing historic ethics reform during the special session.

“We understand the huge task that awaits you in Montgomery. Tight budgets, high unemployment and increasing federal mandates will make your job hard. But I believe you were chosen for a time such as this,” Newby said. “Throughout our history, America’s victories have been won by courageous men and women who were not intimidated by overwhelming odds. Today, we stand at a crossroads. If the prosperity of America and Alabama are to endure, we must answer the call to be yet another ‘great generation.’”