There are six days left in the 2015 Legislative Session, and both the House and Senate have been focused on solving the state’s budget shortfall. While the budget crisis has not been resolved and state parks and other services remain on the chopping block, we have had some success in moving environmental bills through the legislature. Below is a recap on the progress of the bills Conservation Alabama has supported this session.
SB260 – Healthy Food Financing Act
This bill creates an incentive system of tax breaks and grants to encourage grocery stores to locate in rural and urban “food deserts” throughout the state. The Healthy Food Financing Act has been passed and forwarded to the governor’s office for his signature.
HB61 – Public Service Commission, regulation of pipelines for gas and hazardous liquids, penalties for violation of safety standards increased
This bill successfully passed out of the House this week, and is now being debated by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would increase penalties for responsible parties in the event of a pipeline break or spill, which is more relevant than ever after the recent oil pipeline break in California. Plains All American, the company responsible for the pipeline break in California, is the parent company of Plains Southcap, the company constructing and operating a pipeline in the watershed of Big Creek Lake, Mobile’s drinking water supply.
SB21/HB195 – Open Meetings Act
Currently in the House Committee on Ethics and Campaign Finance after a second reading, this bill closes gaps in the existing Open Meetings Act to help make government actions more transparent and accessible for the public. This bill specifies that serial meetings, in which members of government boards meet together in groups that are too small to be considered a quorum, are in fact illegal.
SB4/HB128 – Motor vehicles must maintain safe distance of at least three feet from bicycle
After passing in the senate with the additional restriction that cars must stay five feet from bikes, this bill is currently in the House Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.
HB214 – Taxation, tax credits for rehabilitation of qualified structures, credits extended until 2022
Now in the Senate Committee on Tourism and Marketing, this bill extends an existing tax credit for property owners who restore historic buildings. A public hearing on the bill was held on Wednesday, in which supporters noted that the tax credit makes available a pool of $20 million each year for qualified projects.
SB220 – Property Insurance and Energy Reduction Act of Alabama
Passed by the Senate this week and sent to the House Committee on County and Municipal Government, this bill provides a framework for local governments to offer tax incentives to property owners for making their properties more energy efficient and resilient to storms.
Attempts to reconcile Alabama’s looming budget shortfall continued this week with two distinct plans emerging from the legislature. Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) has compiled a slate of bills that includes tax increases and agency consolidations. These bills are scheduled for debate on Tuesday on a continuing calendar, which means the House will focus only on these bills until decisions are reached on each one. Highlights of the budget plan include:
- HB572 (Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham): Increases cigarette tax by 25 cents per pack
- HB578 (Rep. Chris Sells, R-Greenville): Increases auto title fee from $15 to $25
- HB584 (Rep. Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka): Consolidates the Alabama Historical Commission into the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Department of Archives and History, allegedly generating $1.1 million
In addition to these bills, Rep. Hubbard is urging Governor Bentley to accept the $250 million loan offered by the Poarch Creek Indians in exchange for exclusive gaming rights in Alabama.
Speaking of gambling, Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston) continues to push his own budget solution, which calls for a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to create a lottery and expand gambling. Marsh’s bill, SB453, was introduced this week. A hearing on the bill is scheduled for May 12 at 1pm.
While budget talks continue, there is still no definitive information on the future of Alabama’s State Parks, which are slated to be cut by the legislature’s austerity budget. Special legislative sessions could be scheduled for this summer if the budget is not resolved before the regular session adjourns on June 15. Conservation Alabama will continue to monitor the budget plans being debated and advocate for the full funding of Alabama’s State Park system.
This week’s legislative news was dominated by budget talks and Sen. Cam Ward’s (R-Alabaster) prison reform bill, but one of the bills we’re following did make some progress through the legislature. SB260/HB283, the Healthy Food Financing Act, has been passed out of the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. This bill provides incentives for grocery stores to locate in Alabama’s urban and rural “food deserts” to address the lack of access to affordable, fresh foods in many of our communities.
Three options have emerged to deal with Alabama’s state budget shortfall. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) has proposed a bill to allow a constitutional referendum that would legalize gambling in Alabama. If this bill passes, voters would go to the polls on September 15 to decide whether or not to ratify the constitutional amendment.
If Sen. Marsh’s gambling bill does not pass, the state will be left with two options to correct the budget deficit: raise taxes or drastically cut the budget. As Conservation Alabama has previously noted, one of the casualties of the proposed budget cuts is the state park system, which would be forced to close 15 of Alabama’s 22 parks. Over 1700 messages and letters have been sent to state elected officials to let them know how vital Alabama’s state parks are to our environment, economy, and communities – if you haven’t already, add your voice now.
Governor Bentley continues to advocate for his office’s proposed tax increases, which would raise over $500 million in new revenue. The majority of this revenue would be generated by increased taxes on tobacco sales and auto sales.
Several of Conservation Alabama’s priority bills were scheduled to be considered this week, but only one made any progress in its trip through the legislature:
Open Meetings Act (HB 128): The companion bill to SB 21 passed the House Committee on Ethics and Campaign Finance, and is now in position to be debated on the House floor.
Historic Tax Credit Extension (HB 214): On Thursday, this bill was on the House Special Order ten-minute calendar, which means that ten minutes are allotted for debate on each scheduled bill. If debate exceeds ten minutes, the bill has to be carried over or put on a future calendar. After contentious debate on a bill that would restructure the Birmingham Water Works Board, the House adjourned without considering the remainder of the bills on the ten-minute calendar, including HB 214.
Pipeline Safety (HB 61): HB 61 was also a victim of the ten-minute calendar issue, and has not yet been considered.
Updates on environmental bills can be found on Conservation Alabama’s Bill Tracker. Follow us on Twitter @ConservationAL for the latest information on these bills as they move through the legislature.