The state legislature met on Tuesday and Thursday of this week, spending Wednesday in committee meetings. On Tuesday, more than three hours of the House’s legislative time was spent debating a resolution to encourage the U.S. Congress to support the president’s “government reform agenda.” There was also debate on both the prison reform plan and the state’s policy of judicial override; the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would end a judge’s ability to override a jury’s verdict.
Of the bills Conservation Alabama is currently tracking this session, HB 7 passed out of its committee, bringing us a step closer to allowing Alabamians to donate part of their income tax return to our state parks. This new avenue for contributions gives us another way to support our parks, and thanks to the passage of Amendment 2 on Election Day 2016 we can be sure that any money we donate will stay within the state parks system.
SB 113 passed the Senate and will now be sent to the House Ways & Means Committee. This bill streamlines the process that wastewater treatment facilities have to follow in order to be licensed by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). Currently, facilities have to have a bond in case ADEM needs to take over the facility and/or close it. Facilities also have to pay a fee into an account that is for the same purpose. This bill removes the fee element and redefines the bond requirement to make sure that the state can afford to safely close a facility if necessary.
Federally, confirmation hearings are continuing for the president’s cabinet-level positions. This includes the hearing for Scott Pruitt, the president’s nominee for head of the EPA. As Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) noted in her announcement that she would oppose this confirmation, during Pruitt’s time as attorney general of Oklahoma he filed lawsuits against the EPA in an attempt to restrict the agency’s ability to protect our natural resources and public health. To voice your opinion on Pruitt’s nomination, click here. The full Senate vote on Pruitt’s confirmation is expected to be held this afternoon.
The Forever Wild Land Trust held its first quarterly board meeting of the new year on Thursday. Conservation Alabama was on hand to present the results of a return on investment study recently completed by the Trust for Public Land that quantified the economic impact that Forever Wild brings to the state. The study found that for every $1 spent on conserving land in Alabama, Forever Wild contributes $5 in natural goods and services to our economy.
While we all know how vital public lands are to the state, this dollar figure helps policymakers see the true value of investing in conservation. Beyond services like wildlife habitat and flood control, the public lands preserved by Forever Wild also serve as the foundation for our state’s recreation industry, which generates more than $2 billion in spending each year. Forever Wild also improves the quality of life in communities by attracting businesses and new residents and providing public place for outdoor exercise.
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner Gunter Guy noted that the study’s results confirmed the state’s message that investments in conservation pay off. Alabama relies on its natural resources for tourism and recreation in addition to industries like forestry and commercial fishing, and without public lands our state’s economy would suffer along with our communities and our environment.
The full return on investment study can be read here. Along with our partners at The Nature Conservancy in Alabama we will be sharing the study with the state legislature so that our elected officials have the best possible information when making decisions about Forever Wild during the 2017 session, which began on Tuesday, and beyond.
The Alabama State House and Senate adjourned sine die Wednesday evening, bringing a contentious special session to a close. Gov. Bentley called for the session in late July, saying legislators needed to return to Montgomery in August to discuss a potential lottery and find a solution to the state’s $85 million Medicaid shortfall.
The lottery was the legislature’s primary focus in the beginning of the special session; any bill calling for a lottery would have gone before the voters as a constitutional amendment. The deadline for constitutional amendments to be added to the ballot was just one of many disagreements that arose between legislators and state officials during this debate. After arguments over how potential earnings from a lottery would be spent and what constituted gaming, the lottery bill ultimately died as a result of concerns in the Senate that it would negatively impact dog tracks.
With the lottery off the table as a potential revenue stream for Medicaid and the General Fund, legislators turned to the settlement paid to the state as a result of the 2010 BP oil spill. This portion of the settlement is meant to deal with the economic damage that occurred in the wake of the disaster; earlier payments were delineated for environmental restoration. At various points during debate it seemed that the legislature would adjourn without a solution, but on Wednesday a compromise was passed that provides a total of $120 million for Medicaid in 2017 and 2018, repays $400 million of the state’s debt, and allocates $120 million to the two coastal counties for road projects.
The legislature will return for the 2017 legislative session on February 7.