State legislatures throughout the Southeast are currently dealing with some of the worst budget crises seen in decades, and most farm group leaders agree that in many cases, decisions will have to be made to either cut services or raise taxes.
In Georgia, the General Assembly is taking the unusual step of recessing five days prior to the end of the session and reconvening in June so that legislators will have a better handle on budget numbers and tax collections.
The state of Alabama is facing 9-percent proration in its education budget and a hiring freeze for non-educational personnel. The state legislature, which convened on Feb. 3, will be considering spending cuts, higher taxes and fees and possibly the taxation and expansion of gambling.
“This will likely be one of the most trying legislative sessions in many years for elected officials and grassroots organizations like the Alabama Farmers Federation,” says Federation Governmental Affairs Director Paul Pinyan. “Not only will there not be funds for new projects, we could very well see cuts for agencies and programs that serve our rural members. The tight budgets also will provide more incentive for lawmakers to raise taxes or to compromise their positions on gambling.”
Some Alabama legislators are moving to tax existing gambling operations. Under federal law, this could allow the expansion of Native American gaming centers from “bingo-style” operations to full-blown casinos. Meanwhile, advocates of higher property taxes will continue to push for a constitutional convention. That’s why it’s more important than ever for Federation members to make their voices heard, says Pinyan.
“When times are tough and money is tight, the loudest, most vocal groups get top priority. Our legislators will have to make difficult decisions to balance this year’s budget. They’ll either have to cut spending, raise taxes or both,” Pinyan says. “It’s our responsibility to make sure our elected officials understand how cutting essential services or raising taxes would impact our farms and families.”
Late last year, the Federation’s Department of Governmental Affairs polled county Federation leaders to establish priorities for the upcoming legislative session. Their priorities include: returning property reappraisals to once every four years; passage of the Family Farm Preservation Act; securing a bond issue to improve roads and bridges; incentives for the development and use of alternative energy; preserving sales tax exemptions for seed, feed and fertilizer; preserving funding for critical agricultural research and education programs; and making sure agriculture is given priority in any statewide water management plan.
While property reappraisals and the Family Farm Protection Act have been priorities in past years, farmers expressed renewed interest in the state’s roads and bridges when surveyed.
The deteriorating condition of Alabama’s roads and bridges was highlighted during educational workshops sponsored by the Federation following the passage last year of an exemption from federal motor carrier safety regulations. During those meetings, state department of public safety officials revealed farm trucks were prohibited from crossing many bridges that had fallen into disrepair.
County officials say there are more than 1,500 bridges on Alabama county roads that have received failing grades under federal standards. This is particularly important to farmers, because 80 percent of the $128 billion worth of commodities delivered annually from sites in Alabama is transported by trucks on the state’s highways, according to the Federation.
Pinyan says there is broad-based support for repairing roads and bridges, but like everything else this session, funding will be the issue. Still, state legislators must put Alabama in the best position for federal infrastructure funding from the Obama administration as Congress debates a new transportation bill this year that may require state matching funds.
“Most lawmakers realize our state’s infrastructure is vital to our continued economic growth, but they differ on how to fund these improvements,” Pinyan says. “Our task will be to educate elected officials about this and other needs of farmers while standing firm in our opposition to higher taxes that would place an additional burden on cash-strapped farmers and families.”
In Georgia, state revenue collections are down and all indications are that new numbers will be worse than expected. Officials with the Georgia Farm Bureau state that these are “trying times for legislators who are mandated by the Georgia Constitution to pass a balanced budget. The state’s House and Senate will reconvene during the final week of June to allow lawmakers to make budget and spending adjustments before the new fiscal year begins on July 1.
The following are priority issues for the Georgia Farm Bureau during the current legislative session:
• Water: The Bureau will continue to be actively involved in the water issue as the Comprehensvie Statewide Water Management Plan moves from the planning to the implementation phase. “We will remain engaged with the 10 Regional Water Councils and we support adequate funding to implement the water plan. We will work to become more involved in the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, and we will work with the green industry to support low-volume irrigation exemptions from future outdoor watering restrictions. We urge all reasonable means to conserve water and to increase our water supplies,” say Bureau officials.
• Taxes & Budget: Bureau officials state: “We recognize the seriousness of the current budget situation. However, it is important to remember the positive contributions made to our citizens by the various agricultural institutions in Georgia. We support meaningful property tax reform and homeowner relief grants to local governments, and we will protect the integrity of the Conservation Use Value Assessment program. We will also work to ease the sales tax burden for farmers.
• Immigration: The Bureau urges federal lawmakers to engage in meaningful immigration reform.
“However, we believe it problematic to have a patchwork of different state and local immigration measures. While the issue is emotionally charged, we call for restraint regarding immigration reform efforts at the state level and will continue to be a voice of reason regarding this issue.
• Farmer Initiatives: The Bureau will work to create a more positive environment for modern agriculture by educating landowners and the general public about farming and animal husbandry methods, practices, and conditions, thereby reducing nuisance complaints. “We will work to preserve the Boll Weevil Eradication Program, and we will assist producers who have an interest in forming new state commodity commissions within the guidelines of the Georgia Agricultural Commodities Promotion Act.