Faced with falling tax revenues and the loss of federal stimulus funds, the priority of many state legislatures this year has been simply to balance their budgets, but some laws have been approved and others are pending that could have an impact on farmers.
In Georgia, the ag-related legislation that garnered the most attention this year related to immigration reform. Opposed by the Georgia Farm Bureau and other agriculture and tourism related groups, the new immigration law passed both houses of the state’s General Assembly and has been signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal.
Some of the key provisions of Georgia’s immigration legislation are as follows:
• E-Verify — Every private employer with more than 10 employees must use the federal work authorization program, known as E-Verify. This requirement shall be effective on Jan. 1, 2012, for employers with 500 or more employees; on July 1, 2012 for employers with 100 to 499 employees; on July 1, 2013, for employers with 11 to 99 employees. In order to obtain business licenses, employers will be required to sign a sworn affidavit attesting they use the E-Verify program.
• Jan. 1 Provision — Determining the number of employees for the E-Verify requirement will be based on the number of full-time employees hired as of Jan. 1 each year. If the employer has 11 or more full-time employees on Jan. 1, that employer will be required to sign a sworn affidavit attesting to E-Verify use in order to legally obtain a business license. The bill defines a full-time employee as a person working more than 35 hours per week.
• Department of Agriculture Report — The bill instructs the Georgia Department of Agriculture to develop a report on federal guest worker programs and make recommendations related to those programs.
• 1099 Contract Labor — There are no provisions pertaining to 1099 contract labor in the legislation. Earlier bills would have tied business expense deductibility of 1099 contract labor to the use of E-Verify.
• Transporting/Harboring Illegal Aliens — The legislation makes it unlawful to knowingly transport or hide persons who are in this country illegally. The first offense for transporting or harboring seven or fewer illegal aliens is a misdemeanor with penalties being up to a year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine. Penalties are substantially increased under the felony provisions for subsequent offenses, offenses with eight or more illegal aliens, or when the offender is profiting from the traffic.
• False Documents — The legislation makes it a crime for a person to willfully and fraudulently use false identifying information for the purpose of obtaining a job. If convicted, the person who intentionally provided the false information is subject to imprisonment between 1 to 15 years, and fines not to exceed $250,000 or both.
• Similar immigration reform appeared likely to be passed by the Alabama Legislature in early May.
Also in Georgia, the Farm bureau had sought to broaden the scope of agricultural sales tax exemptions to cover all farmer input costs. However, that reform stalled before the current session of the General Assembly ended.
The agricultural provisions in the bill were never contested, but there had been major controversy regarding other sections in the bill.
Like lawmakers in most other states, Georgia legislators were in the budget-cutting mode this year. However, many programs fared better than Gov. Deal’s January request due to an increase in state revenues.
The UGA Cooperative Extension Service was reduced $2.05 million from FY 2011, but the General Assembly added $400,000 more than the governor’s original request for the 2012 budget. The Experiment Stations were cut by $2.3 million from FY 2011, but $600,000 was added by the Legislature for FY 2012.
Funding also was reduced for Agricultural Education by $322,000, which was less than the $644,000 proposed in January.
The Georgia Soil & Water Conservation Commission was reduced by roughly 9 percent, and there was no funding in the budget for the Georgia Water Planning and Policy Center.
Other priority issues for the Georgia Farm Bureau was animal agriculture, including opportunities to increase support for food animal veterinary services in the state and seeking additional avenues to control feral hogs.
Below are bills that addressed this priority issue during the 2011 legislative session:
• HB 60 — Provide a State Veterinary Education Board. This bill creates a State Veterinary Education Board that could assist with loans of applicants who have completed a doctor of veterinary medicine program. Only persons whose veterinary medicine practices in this state include food animals will be eligible for loan forgiveness.
• HB 277 — Hunting and Baiting Deer and Feral Hogs. This bill allows for hunting deer and feral hogs over feed or bait in the southern hunting region of Georgia.
HB 485 — Feral Hogs. This bill makes it illegal to release feral hogs into the wild and enacts penalties for those who break the law.