Legislative Post-mortem: The good, the bad, and the ugly
After 13 years monitoring the state legislature on behalf of the environment, we at Conservation Alabama know to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Invariably, what you end up getting is some good, some bad, and some ugly.
In early February, we entered the legislative session with an agenda about transportation, energy, and water, most of which saw some movement this session. However, other environmentally related issues also played significantly into our efforts. Here’s a post-mortem on how environmental matters fared during the 2012 Regular Session.
The biggest win for the environment this session could help numerous communities. Rep. Ron Johnson, R-Sylacauga led the charge to pass a bill requiring centralized waste treatment facilities seeking a permit from ADEM to post a performance bond or other financial assurance in an amount sufficient to close the facility. This stemmed from a facility near Sylacauga that was polluting the community for years before finally declaring bankruptcy, leaving the taxpayers to deal with its clean up. Johnson and local advocates know this bill is too late to help Sylacauga, but they hope no other community has to deal with the same issue in the future.
After passing a two-year moratorium on new landfill permits last session, the legislature came back this year to extend that moratorium an additional year. Alabama has been the nation’s dumping ground, and state leaders, including Governor Robert Bentley, want that to change. During this moratorium period, state officials will study landfill permitting practices and how they are affecting public health and environmental quality for local communities.
The legislature passed the Farm-to-School Procurement Act, which will encourage more local produce to be served at schools around Alabama. A win for local farmers, the bill could also lead to more healthy meal options for a state that ranks poorly in childhood obesity.
While we celebrated the first time a Conservation Alabama-backed bill passed the historically anti-environmental House Commerce Committee, the victory was short-lived. The bill sponsored by Rep. Jack Williams, R-Vestavia Hills, which would have updated the qualifications for members of the Alabama Environmental Management Commission, was part of the collateral damage of the Jefferson County occupation tax fight. It was on the calendar late in the session, but never came up for a vote in the full House.
Rep. Chad Fincher, R-Semmes introduced a comprehensive, statewide water management bill after years of study and consideration by a joint legislative committee. However, it was introduced so late in the session it never came up for a vote in committee. Expect to see more on this bill in 2013.
What did get traction on the issue of water was a bill that would provide tax incentives for farmers to install irrigation systems. Despite extremely tight budgets and the lack of any comprehensive water planning, farmers could get $10,000 toward irrigation systems in the future.
After trying to establish a statewide sales tax holiday on Energy Star appliances for the past few years, the bill sponsored by Rep. Greg Wren, R-Montgomery again stalled in committee. In fact, after several years of success passing energy related bills, only one to establish the energy and fuel research and development grants program in the Department of Agriculture made it through the legislative gauntlet.
Despite two bills introduced by Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham and an amendment by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham to add transit to a transportation infrastructure bank bill, transit-related legislation didn’t budge this session. Governor Bentley is moving forward with a plan to borrow against future federal allocations to fix some of our worst roads in Alabama, but new funding for transit remains elusive.
The bill that had us shaking our heads this session conjured up thoughts of black helicopter conspiracy theories. Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville passed a bill that would “prohibit the State of Alabama and its political subdivisions from adopting and developing environmental and developmental policies that, without due process, would infringe or restrict the private property rights of the owner of the property.” The bill explicitly discusses Agenda 21 – a set of United Nations recommendations adopted in 1992 about development patterns and environmental policy.
The irony is that similar, if not exact, anti-Agenda 21 legislation has been introduced this year and in recent years all across the country, including Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. So, which is the conspiracy – the recommendations made at a United Nations conference 20 years ago, or the systematically orchestrated legislative campaign being waged across the country to combat it?
Bottom line, the 2012 Regular Session of the Alabama State Legislature overall was a good one for the environment. The good legislation that passed will help improve Alabama’s public health, economy, and environment as the policies are implemented over the coming months and years. Fortunately, the bad this session wasn’t backsliding on past progress, but instead the bad was missed opportunities to do better for the environment. Finally, the ugly of the session makes you shake your head at what the legislature can spend its time doing, or in the case of transit, not doing.
The legislature will wrap up its special session soon, and then the preparation for the 2013 regular session can begin. Conservation Alabama will be working over the coming months to ensure we have more good and less bad next year. We’ll make no promises on the ugly.
The final Hot List of the 2012 Regular Session will be available later this week at conservationalabama.org.