Forever Wild Once Again At Risk

imagesThis week our public lands once again came under attack. House Bill 502 was introduced last week and will go to committee on Wednesday, April 26 at 3:00 pm.  HB 502 proposes a constitutional amendment that would require the Forever Wild Land Trust to pay counties for any lost ad valorem taxes on lands purchased through the program. The bill does not specify how these tax payments are calculated, allowing counties to determine how much is owed.

HB 502 starts the clock on the end of future Forever Wild purchases. With each additional acquisition, more taxes are owed, and less funding is available to purchase additional lands for public hunting, fishing and recreation.

A recent Return on Investment study shows that for every $1 invested to purchase lands, $5 is returned to the state in goods and services. In addition to services like wildlife habitat and flood control, the public lands preserved by Forever Wild serve as the foundation for our state’s recreation industry, which generates more than $2 billion in spending each year.

There is a misconception that Forever Wild has a special provision exempting it from ad valorem taxes. However, all state-owned lands are exempt from ad valorem (property) taxes – from the Governor’s Mansion and State House, to lands in the state-owned university system. These bills unfairly target a program proven to provide economic benefits to our state.

Forever Wild was overwhelming supported when introduced in 1992 with 83% of the vote and reauthorized in 2012 by 75% of voters. HB 502 is simply another back-door attempt to dismantle the program.

Please send a message to your legislators today: Vote NO on HB 502

What a difference a week makes

AL Capitol DomeMonday the House Judiciary Committee began impeachment hearings in an attempt to oust Governor Robert Bentley.  Because of the impeachment process, the legislature had been preparing for a major disruption of the legislative session with anticipation of at least one special session. Late Monday afternoon that disruption was removed when Bentley agreed to plead to two misdemeanors, relinquish his security detail, forfeit the remainder of his campaign account and promise to never run for public office again. Lieutenant Governor Kay Ivey was sworn in as the 54th Governor of Alabama late Monday afternoon.

With fewer distractions the legislature can now focus its remaining time on the budgets, reapportionment, prisons, Medicaid and other legislative matters. When the legislature convened for the start of the second half of the legislative session it was back to business as usual, including the introduction of bills that once again threaten the future of Forever Wild.

House Bill 502 by Rep. Mark Tuggle (R-Alexander City) was introduced this week. Under existing law, property that has been acquired by the Forever Wild Land Trust is not subject to ad valorem taxation, as is the case with any land owned by the state. HB 502 proposes a constitutional amendment that would require Forever Wild to annually reimburse the amount to each county of any ad valorem tax revenue lost as a result of property previously subject to such that is acquired by Forever Wild.

The constitutional amendment has been assigned to the House Committee on State Government.

Rep. Ron Johnson (R-Sylacauga) introduced HB 490, a similar constitutional amendment with only local application for Coosa County.  This bill calls for lost ad valorem taxes paid directly from the Alabama Trust Fund. It has been approved by the local delegation and awaits a vote by the full House.

The Forever Wild Coosa Wildlife Management Area (WMA) Cahaba and Columbiana Tract consists of 9,746 acres of mountain longleaf pine and hardwood habitat within the Weogufka and Hatchet Creek watersheds in Coosa County. This acreage contributes to the 32,624 total acres within the Coosa Wildlife Management Area WMA, one of Alabama’s oldest established public hunting areas. The Forever Wild Land Trust section of the Coosa WMA provides recreational opportunities including hunting, fishing, canoeing, hiking and camping.

Conservation Alabama sees these bills as a threat to the purchase of additional lands through Forever Wild, as it creates a financial burden for the program.  These bills also unfairly target Forever Wild, though all state-owned lands are exempt from payment of ad valorem taxes.

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Halfway through session, uncertainty looming

cropped-al-capitol-building1.jpgThursday marked the halfway point of a legislative session and what happens next is still a mystery with impeachment hearings scheduled to begin Monday. Most of the big legislative items like the budgets, prisons and reapportionment have yet to pass and now much of the remainder of the legislative session could be in jeopardy.

Wednesday the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause that Governor Robert Bentley violated the state ethics and campaign finance law and forwarded their investigation to the Montgomery County district attorney.

Thursday, Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh called for Bentley to resign and Friday the Special Counsel to the House Judiciary Committee released a written report of his investigation to the committee, counsel to the governor and the public. Monday the House Judiciary Committee will begin impeachment hearings.

The House went straight to work Tuesday and continued Thursday passing about 30 bills. Legislation that would prevent a judge from overriding a jury’s recommendation in a capital (death penalty) case passed the House 78-19 and is on the Governor’s desk for his signature.

Also passing was HB36 by Rep. Lynn Greer (R-Rogersville) passed, 63-33. It would extend the state’s Stand Your Ground law to churches. It does not require any training for armed church members in exchange for criminal immunity.

Tuesday, the Senate passed, 29-2, the education budget. The $6.4 million budget is about $90 million more than the current budget. It now moves to the House for consideration.

Thursday the Senate worked off a 19-bill special order calendar, passing several pieces of legislation before adjourning early afternoon.

There was movement on several pieces of legislation being monitored and supported by Conservation Alabama.

Passing the House this week was HB328 by Rep. Alan Baker (R-Brewton) that alters the local governing bodies’ approval process for siting a new solid waste management facility located within the jurisdiction of the governing body. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.

HB288 by Rep. Margie Wilcox (R-Mobile) has passed the House and received a favorable report from the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. The bill would allow the owner of a vessel to purchase one-year distinctive vessel id stickers, showing support for approved organizations. Half the proceeds would be allocated to Alabama’s state parks.

HB345 – Historic Tax Credit by Rep. Victor Gaston (R-Mobile) would renew the tax credit for the preservation, renovation, or development of historic properties received a favorable committee report this week and is in position to be debated by the full House.

HB403 by Rep. Randy Davis (R-Daphne) as amended and reported by the House Committee on State Government allows for riparian property owners to dredge sand and sediment from in front of their riparian property for living shoreline restoration. It now goes to the House for consideration.

HB473 by Rep. Johnson and Rep. Tuggle was introduced yesterday and would propose an amendment to the constitution that would require additional payments from the Alabama Trust Fund for the Forever Wild Land Trust to reimburse counties for lost ad valorem taxes.

There remain lots of uncertainty as to the remainder of the legislative due to the impeachment hearings and the possibility of a Senate trial.  As always we will keep you updated with any new developments.

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