Farmers and rural families will benefit from actions during the 2018 Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature, which saw bills pass aimed at improving broadband access, irrigation, agricultural education and the clarity of tax laws.
Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell thanked legislators for recognizing the importance of agriculture and forestry — the state’s largest industry.
“This was one of the most positive legislative sessions in recent history for Alabama farmers and landowners,” Parnell said. “Our economy is strong, and this gave legislators the flexibility to address some of the challenges keeping rural Alabama from enjoying the same benefits as our cities and towns.”
One barrier to economic growth and a better quality of life is lack of internet access. Gov. Kay Ivey and the state Senate made expanding rural broadband a priority for the session. Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Red Hill, and Rep. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, sponsored the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, which will provide grants through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs to companies investing in broadband infrastructure for underserved areas.
Legislators also approved two bills aimed at increasing on-farm irrigation. Chesteen sponsored a measure clarifying existing irrigation tax credits for farmers. The bill specifies farmers may claim the credit for one qualifying irrigation system or reservoir in 2011-17 and another during 2018-22. Current law caps credit for the 2011-17 program at $10,000 and $50,000 for tax years 2018-22.
Ivey also signed a bill by Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, giving the Agricultural and Conservation Development Commission greater flexibility in targeting federal funds to high-impact projects, including irrigation. The bill, which was supported by the Alabama Association of Conservation Districts, could help Alabama secure additional federal funding to improve the utilization of soil and water resources in the state.
Meanwhile, the Legislature affirmed Alabama’s commitment to exempt farm products from sales tax by clarifying current law. The legislation by Rep. David Sessions, R-Grand Bay, and Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, specifies Alabama’s current state sales tax exemption applies when a farmer cultivates and harvests an agricultural product on leased or rented land. The bill also states gross receipts from the sale of pine straw products by the person who harvested the product are exempt from state sales tax.
Agriculture and forestry fared well in the state’s Education Trust Fund (ETF) and General Fund (GF) budgets, which included pay raises for teachers and state employees. The $2 billion GF budget fully funds the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) program at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management at $575,000. It also includes $81,403 in matching funds to help Alabama expand on-farm irrigation through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).
The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries was funded at $12 million, including $3 million for the Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) program. The Alabama Forestry Commission was level funded at $7.6 million.
The $6.6 billion ETF budget provides $5 million for career tech operations and management. Another $5.4 million was set aside for the career tech initiative, including an additional $300,000 for agricultural education programs like Ag in the Classroom and Classroom in the Forest. The Liberty Learning Foundation, a citizenship education program supported by the Alfa Foundation and others, received $75,000.
Rural medicine programs at Auburn University, Tuskegee University, the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama in Huntsville were level funded at $2.4 million total. The Soil and Water Conservation Committee was level funded at $1.5 million, while the RC&D program was up $250,000 to $2 million. Funding for the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station increased $881,000 to $32 million, and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System received an additional $919,000 to $33.4 million. The budget also includes a conditional appropriation of $7.4 million for grants to expand high-speed internet access under the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act.
Other successful legislation included a bill by Sen. Steve Livingston, R-Scottsboro, and Rep. Kyle South, R-Fayette, increasing the annual appropriation for the Emergency Forest Fire, Insect and Disease Fund from $180,000 to $250,000. The bill also increased the fund cap from $1 million to $2 million.
South and Scofield also sponsored a bill giving the governor greater flexibility in appointing one member of the Alabama Environmental Management Commission. It allows a professional geologist to serve on the seven-member panel. Current law requires the seat to be held by a certified well driller, which has created challenges in finding a qualified appointee.