Editor’s Note: Conservation Alabama thanks Claire Guest for her service as an AmeriCorps VISTA. She left us a blog post on her experience with the organization, what she learned from living in Birmingham, and her future plans. Best wishes, Claire!
Almost a year ago, I signed a contract with AmeriCorps and the YWCA to serve as a Programs and Outreach Assistant with Conservation Alabama and the Conservation Alabama Foundation. On August 8th, I officially finished my year of service with Conservation Alabama. It is hard to believe my time here has come to an end. Before this experience I knew little about the social and environmental issues that affect Alabamians. I had spent the last six years earning my Bachelors and Masters degrees in Tuscaloosa and then Pennsylvania. Academic study, despite its obvious merits, created a veil between myself and what I perceived to be the “real world.” One of the greatest gifts AmeriCorps and Conservation Alabama has given me over the past year is the total dissolution of that veil.
Though Conservation Alabama advocates for sound environmental public policies at the state and local levels, much of my service focused specifically on the city of Birmingham, where I have been based. I got the incredible opportunity to collaborate with the United Way’s Community Impact department on projects involving urban agriculture and planning. It became clear to me through this collaboration that public policies affect city planners and residents in profound ways.
I consulted with community gardeners about applying for permits with the city of Birmingham. Before a new urban-ag ordinance was passed last year, all forms of farming and gardening were illegal in the city limits. Many gardeners and operations had already sprung up, but the ordinance had the potential to legitimize these efforts and protect more productive uses of our city’s land.
Through educating city planners on Complete Streets policies, I also learned firsthand how inclusive road designs can affect transportation and local economies. Complete Streets advocate taking existing roads and making them safe for multiple users, including cyclists, buses, and pedestrians. It makes people the focus of design, which automatically shifts the idea of what, or better yet, who our roads are for.
In June, I served as a staff member at Anytown Alabama, a social justice leadership camp for teens from all over Birmingham and other parts of the state. At Anytown, I learned to think of community in a way that has totally enriched my worldview, and through my service with Conservation Alabama, I got to see that refined definition in action. Public policy has the potential to change the way we relate to our communities and to our environment. It can reframe the conversation about what we need and want for our communities in a productive way. It can even change the way individuals feel about themselves. Good policies empower individuals. In one small, personal example: a bike lane on a busy road offers me a safe space to ride. It acknowledges my existence as a cyclist and says, “This road is for you.” It also acknowledges that transportation isn’t limited to cars and trucks – that not everyone has access to these things but they should still feel empowered to get to where they need to go, whether that’s a job or the grocery store or the bank, etc. Public policies and good design have the potential to create a city that feels safe for people in a multitude of different circumstances, as well as address current public health and social justice issues that have plagued Birmingham and Alabama throughout its history.
When we create policies that seek to acknowledge the multi-faceted circumstances of all people – especially those with different abilities and socioeconomic circumstances – we’re helping to create a local culture that’s beginning to acknowledge how valuable every person, every community, is to Birmingham and Alabama.
Through AmeriCorps and Conservation Alabama, I’ve had such incredible opportunities to live lessons outside of a classroom setting. This has been one of the most valuable experiences of my life. I plan on serving a second year with a conservation corps out West, and I can say that I would have never known about that opportunity had I not served this year. I would have never known about the incredible work people throughout Alabama are doing every day to make this little corner of the South a more inclusive and just place to live and play and work. It has been an honor to do my small part. Thank you so much for letting me.
The 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.
- 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.
Last 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.