2014 Legislative Session recap

ImageThe legislature abruptly adjourned around 7:30 last Thursday evening after the House approved the $5.9 billion Education budget, which included money to pay for teachers increase in health insurance, but did not include a 2 percent pay raise. Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) laid the blame at Governor Bentley for causing both Houses to adjourn early and causing the death of several key bills. Marsh also blamed the House for sending the Education budget to the Governor so early in the evening. Marsh and the two Education budget chairmen claim they reached an agreement with the Governor on the education budget two weeks earlier that didn’t include a 2 percent pay raise for teachers and that the Governor reneged on that agreement Thursday. The Governor said he wanted the to give the Legislature an opportunity to vote on a pay raise for teachers.

The Governor has until Sunday to sign the Education budget into law and has said he will make a decision by the end of the week. If he doesn’t sign, he will have to call a special session sometime before the end of the fiscal year that ends September 30th.

Speaker Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) made the decision to end the 2014 legislative session last Thursday, instead of the original plan of early this week. This decision led to lobbyists scurrying to get legislation on the final special order calendars and preparing for a long three-day final week. Those long days never materialized and many bills died because of disagreements, misunderstandings and early adjournments.

As expected, legislators came in, concentrated on the budgets and got out quickly, cramming their 30 meeting days into an 80 day time frame instead of the normal 105, giving them more time to hit the campaign trail. They left a lot of legislation on the table, environmental and otherwise. 

While none of our priority bills passed, two did come close. On Thursday both Senate Bill 9 and House Bill 292 were in a position to pass and expected to be considered before the House and Senate adjourned hours earlier than expected. Senate Bill 9, which would require a safe passing distance of at least three feet from bicycles, was on the calendar but did not make it through before the House adjourned. House Bill 292, a bill that would have improved the permitting process for solid waste landfills passed both the House and Senate. However, it was amended in the Senate shortly before adjournment, which ultimately caused it to fail.

Two local bills opposed by Conservation Alabama did pass. Senate Bills 402 and 403 requiring strict regulations for wind energy conversion systems in Etowah and Cherokee counties passed, eliminating any real chance of wind energy in those two counties. After these local bills passed it was thought that Senate Bill 12, a statewide bill to regulate wind energy conversion systems, would make it through with language that superseded the two local bills and included more reasonable and agreed upon language between the two sides. However, proponents of the bill could not get on the same page. Last minute changes to the bill created additional controversy, and the bill ultimately failed to pass in the House and consequently the two local bills will become law.

Senate Bill 355, supported by the Business Council and opposed by Conservation Alabama and other environmental organizations did pass the final week of the session after some debate on the House floor. This bill restricts local government’s ability to control pollution into their local waterways. It now awaits signature by the Governor.

Dates to Remember:

  • The 2014 primary election is June 3
  • The primary run-off is July 15
  • The general election is November 4
  • The newly elected Alabama Legislature for 2014-2018 will return for an organizational session January 13, 2015
  • Governor’s Inauguration is January 19, 2015
  • March 3, 2015 is the first day for the 2015 Regular Session.

Nearing the Finish Line

ImageLast week was quiet in Montgomery as legislators took their spring break, but this week we are back in full swing with a packed agenda. The current schedule is for legislators to meet Tuesday and Thursday of this week and wrap up next Monday. With only a few days left to pass legislation, we can expect a flurry of activity, including movement of many conservation related bills.

 

First up this week, Senate Bill 9 goes before the House Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security Tuesday at noon. As part of an effort to make our streets friendlier for bicycles, SB9 proposes a safe passing distance of at least three feet for vehicles overtaking bicycles. Conservation Alabama supports this bill as part of our “Complete Streets” policies, which maintains that transportation should accommodate the needs of all users. If the bill passes through committee, it could pass in one of the two final days of this legislative session. Before the break last week, Senator Ward of Birmingham also introduced statewide resolutions that would include Complete Streets planning policies for the state.

 

Another positive bill for conservation with the potential to pass is House Bill 292, dealing with solid waste landfills and how they are approved. HB292 would eliminate the automatic approval process that currently exists when municipalities do not respond to permits for landfills, and instead replaces it with an automatic denial after 120 days. This change in the permit approval process also requires applicants to provide fact-based information supporting their proposal.

 

SB355, a bill that restricts local governments’ ability to control pollution into nearby waterways is also moving quickly. As it stands right now, this bill that compromises our water quality could pass this week. Water protection groups throughout the state have sent action alerts this week asking members to contact their legislators. To contact your Representative and ask them to vote no on this bill, visit our action center.

 

Last up on our watch list is SB12, the wind bill, which may come up for vote on Tuesday. Two local bills regulating wind energy in Etowah and Cherokee counties have already passed, and several wind companies are now pushing for this statewide bill to supersede the local bills. Conservation Alabama has proposed an amendment that includes language for both land based and offshore protections in wildlife corridors in addition to the changes already made to the bill.

Local wind bills passed, SB12 in committee this week

ImageLast week local bills passed for both Cherokee and Etowah counties that would regulate Wind Energy Conversion systems in both of these counties.  These local bills contain language from the original version of Senate Bill 12 and impose strict regulations on wind energy providers. SB402 and SB403 require noise levels of no more than 40 decibels, setbacks of 2500 feet from the center of the device to the nearest property’s edge and permission from the local governing body before installing wind turbines that provide power for resale. Due to the level of restrictions these bills impose, their passage means there is little chance of any wind projects in those two counties.

In addition to the passage of these local bills, Senate Bill 12 makes its way to the House committee on Commerce and Small Business on Wednesday for a public hearing.  In its current form, SB12 is much less restrictive than the local bills passed last week.  The noise levels were increased to 50 decibels and setbacks are now 5 times the height of the system from its center to the edge of the nearest commercial or residential building.  SB12 also allows for neighboring properties to waive these setbacks and eliminates Cleburne county altogether.

However, SB12 still provides no protections for birds and other wildlife.  Conservation Alabama is working with partners at Birmingham Audubon to include language for both land based and offshore protections in wildlife corridors.

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