Last week was quiet in Montgomery as legislators took their spring break, but this week we are back in full swing with a packed agenda. The current schedule is for legislators to meet Tuesday and Thursday of this week and wrap up next Monday. With only a few days left to pass legislation, we can expect a flurry of activity, including movement of many conservation related bills.
First up this week, Senate Bill 9 goes before the House Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security Tuesday at noon. As part of an effort to make our streets friendlier for bicycles, SB9 proposes a safe passing distance of at least three feet for vehicles overtaking bicycles. Conservation Alabama supports this bill as part of our “Complete Streets” policies, which maintains that transportation should accommodate the needs of all users. If the bill passes through committee, it could pass in one of the two final days of this legislative session. Before the break last week, Senator Ward of Birmingham also introduced statewide resolutions that would include Complete Streets planning policies for the state.
Another positive bill for conservation with the potential to pass is House Bill 292, dealing with solid waste landfills and how they are approved. HB292 would eliminate the automatic approval process that currently exists when municipalities do not respond to permits for landfills, and instead replaces it with an automatic denial after 120 days. This change in the permit approval process also requires applicants to provide fact-based information supporting their proposal.
SB355, a bill that restricts local governments’ ability to control pollution into nearby waterways is also moving quickly. As it stands right now, this bill that compromises our water quality could pass this week. Water protection groups throughout the state have sent action alerts this week asking members to contact their legislators. To contact your Representative and ask them to vote no on this bill, visit our action center.
Last up on our watch list is SB12, the wind bill, which may come up for vote on Tuesday. Two local bills regulating wind energy in Etowah and Cherokee counties have already passed, and several wind companies are now pushing for this statewide bill to supersede the local bills. Conservation Alabama has proposed an amendment that includes language for both land based and offshore protections in wildlife corridors in addition to the changes already made to the bill.
As we make our way into the last quarter of this Legislative Session, there is both good and bad news for conservation issues. Last week House Bill 292, a bill supported by Conservation Alabama, passed the House. On Wednesday it will go before the Senate committee on Commerce, Transportation and Utilities for a public hearing and vote. HB292 would remove the 90-day default approval of solid waste landfills and instead create a default denial after 120 days. The bill also requires applicants to provide fact-based information supporting their proposal both to the public and to the governmental authority responsible for permitting. Although the substitute bill only provides for new solid waste facilities, exempting modifications to existing facilities, Conservation Alabama believes this bill will provide positive changes for the permitting process of solid waste landfills.
Also moving quickly are companion bills SB355 and HB475. This legislation would restrict local governments’ ability to control pollution into nearby waterways. HB475 has already made its way through the House Commerce Committee and last week SB355 advanced from the Senate committee on Energy and Natural Resources. These bills could now make their way to the House and Senate floor for a vote. Conservation Alabama recently sent an action alert on behalf of Alabama Rivers Alliance and the Alabama Stormwater Partnership opposing these bills. Please visit our action page to ask your Senator and Representative to vote NO on HB475/SB355.
We know you’ve been spending the last few months anxiously awaiting the climax of the legislative session as you’ve been talking with friends and family about the intricate differences between the Compressed Natural Gas Vehicle Tax Incentive, the Hybrid Vehicle Tax Incentive, and the Alternative Fuel Vehicle Tax Incentive bills and the likelihood that they’ll be… What’s that? Oh, you have a life and more important things to do? Fear not, below is a quick recap of the fate of conservation-related legislation.
Perhaps the biggest win for land conservation came from legislation that provides incentives for…wait for it. Development. Odd, right? The catch is that it’s development of historic structures, which are typically in downtown areas or older, more walkable neighborhoods. As demand continues to increase for residential space in urban areas, developers have had a growing incentive to focus their attention on redevelopment of existing structures. The tax credit will direct resources back towards existing infrastructure and away from new neighborhoods built on natural, undeveloped land.
Another piece of legislation that will help direct resources to existing neighborhoods involves granting more local control to municipalities under the state’s land bank authority. Currently, local governments have very little power over tax-delinquent, abandoned properties, which leads to vacant structures and overgrown lots that create safety and sanitation issues for residents. Now cities will have more control to remove legal obstacles for redevelopment of the properties or may choose to use them for other community purposes, such as neighborhood gardens.
Sometimes the bills that don’t pass benefit preservation and restoration efforts as much as ones that make it to the governor’s desk. One example from this session was a proposal to use future settlement funds related to the BP oil spill to repay past borrowing from the Alabama Trust Fund. While repaying what you borrow is certainly admirable, doing it at the expense of coastal communities that suffered devastation probably isn’t the best way to go. With no support from senators representing the areas affected by the spill that are due a larger proportion of the settlement funds, the bill failed to pass the Senate.
Another failed piece of legislation involved an ill-conceived effort to prohibit using green building standards (read: LEED certification) for public buildings. The proposed ban was a result of LEED standards for timber products, which just so happen to differ from other commonly used standards in the state. How much does timber certification factor into the 110-point LEED grading system, you might ask. It affects a single point. One. Fortunately, the legislature determined forbidding governments from seeking the popular LEED certification based on qualms with how they rate one point was a bit of an overreaction.
Last, and least on numerous levels, perhaps the biggest disappointment of the session involved the passage of HB181, which lowers the fees for toxic waste disposal at the Emelle landfill in Sumter County. Governor Bentley signed a moratorium on permitting new landfills in 2011, which the legislature later affirmed, because he recognized our policies were turning the state into the dumping ground for the rest of the country. While state departments are currently studying how to most effectively use our existing waste and prevent unnecessary outside waste from flooding our landfills, the legislature decided to provide further financial incentives for more waste to come in. And it ‘s worth repeating that this isn’t just household garbage they want to bring in. It’s toxic waste.
Many positive bills, such as improved bike safety regulations and a proposed Energy Star tax holiday failed to gain approval, but will likely see life again next year. Conservation Alabama will be in Montgomery advocating for those bills and others that protect the health of Alabama and Alabamians, and we look forward to working with you on making our state a healthier place to live.
As they say, you can count on three things in Alabama; death, taxes, and an entertaining legislative session.
Unless, of course, you want to bury some toxic waste. Then we might just give you a pass on the taxes.