Time to punch out the clock this legislative session

Hard to believe that it was just three years ago at the close of the first legislative session of this quadrennium that a fist-fight broke out on the Senate floor. At the end of the final session of this four-year cycle, there were no punches thrown, but some progress has been made on environmental policy.

Now that the record of the legislature’s votes on the environment has been tallied, there is only one vote that matters: yours. Your vote can determine whether the next legislature is greener than this one.

As we ready ourselves for Election Day, let’s review where environmental policy ended up when the session was gaveled sine die on Earth Day:

– The $1 billion for roads proposal will be on the ballot in November after 11th hour negotiations between the House and the Senate. Jefferson and Shelby county legislators were able to wrangle $2 million a year for the next 10 years for mass transit in the Birmingham region should the constitutional amendment receive majority support of the people of Alabama this fall.
– While roads were the focus of the $1 billion proposal, Alabama’s walking, bike and water trails were also promoted through the adoption of the Alabama Trails Commission legislation, which was signed into law late in the session.
– Despite an early threat from special interests looking to divert funding, the state land-purchasing program remains intact. However, Forever Wild, which received more than 83 percent support of Alabamians 18 years ago, is set to expire in 2012 if legislators and the people of the state don’t reauthorize one of the most successful programs in state history.
– The Joint Legislative Committee on Energy Policy passed a handful of its energy efficiency and energy research-related package of bills. The most notable legal changes upgrade Alabama’s residential energy code to match federal energy codes.
– After nearly 10 years of trying, Alfa passed its “Family Farm Preservation Act” in order to limit nuisance lawsuits against farm operations. Thanks to the tireless efforts of citizen groups like the Sand Mountain Concerned Citizens, the legislation that passed is a shadow of what was originally proposed, and it won’t protect new or expanded hog farms from nuisance lawsuits.

Also of note is legislation that didn’t move this session:

– Due to tough economic times and a strong resistance from the Alabama Education Association, no energy legislation that had a financial impact on the state’s revenue received a vote in committee. This includes bills that would have established a state sales tax holiday on Energy Star appliances and would have provided a tax credit for the installation of energy efficient equipment in homes and businesses.
– While it moved further this session than in the past, legislation to establish a commission to oversee policies of the Alabama Department of Transportation lost its momentum midway through the session.
– Legislation to further clarify local governments’ role in permitting landfills received committee support, but got no further. A similar effort on quarries was dead-on-arrival when the legislation was assigned to the environmentally unfavorable House Commerce Committee.
– Fortunately, an effort to prohibit state agencies from regulating greenhouse gas emissions got no traction.

Overall, this session and the four-year record of this Legislature accounts for modest but marked improvements on the environment. Funding for recycling and landfill enforcement was passed. Solar opportunities were expanded with the elimination of certain insurance requirements. Energy legislation has been passed three of the four sessions. Most bad legislation has been defeated or amended to the point of making it palatable.

As we head to the polls this June for the primary and November for the general election, citizens should keep in mind the environmental records of elected officials at all levels of government. Have your elected officials been conservation-minded? Have they voted for policies that will improve public health and the environment while bolstering our lagging economy?

As Conservation Alabama prepares for the elections as well as the 2011 legislative session, we’ll be asking these questions and more as we interview candidates about where they stand on pressing environmental issues. As Alabama’s only full-time environmental lobbying organization, we will be endorsing conservation-minded candidates for the legislature in hopes of building a team that can pass more environmental priorities over the next four years.

In order to fully hold elected officials accountable, not only must we advocate, communicate, and lobby for our positions, we must reward environmental champions with our vote or deny our support to anti-environmental candidates.

When it comes to making the largest possible impact on environmental policy, the true Earth Day is Election Day. Do your part – live green and vote green.

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