Snyder is an environmental lobbyist with Conservation Alabama and a frequent contributor to Weld. He offers this commentary regarding the eco-related bills that were considered in the Alabama Legislature during the regular session that ended last week.
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 environmental 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 that centralized waste treatment facilities seeking permits from Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) post performance bonds or other financial assurances in an amount sufficient to properly close facilities. This stemmed from concerns about a facility near Sylacauga that was polluting the community for years before the operators finally declared bankruptcy, leaving the taxpayers to deal with the 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), would have updated the qualifications for members of the Alabama Environmental Management Commission. However, the bill suffered as part of the collateral damage from 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.
There have been efforts to establish a statewide sales tax holiday on Energy Star appliances for the past few years. This session, a 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 bill – to establish the energy and fuel research and development grants program in the Department of Agriculture made it through the legislative gauntlet.
Transit-related legislation didn’t budge this session, 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. 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.
Adam R. Snyder is executive director of Conservation Alabama and can be reached at email@example.com.