Southeast states pass legislation affecting farmers

State legislatures in Georgia and Alabama adjourned their regular sessions recently after considering several bills that will have an impact on farmers in the two states.

Officials with the Georgia Farm Bureau are calling the legislative session in that state a “positive” one for agriculture. While several bills addressing Farm Bureau priorities made their way to Gov. Sonny Perdue’s desk for final approval, the biggest issues — water and taxes — will be addressed during the summer and in the 2008 session.

The Comprehensive Statewide Water Management Planning Act of 2004 charged the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) with developing a plan to outline how Georgia manages water. The EPD recently presented its final draft to the Water Council, which will send it to the Georgia General Assembly next January. By the end of the next legislative session, Georgia should have a new statewide water management plan.

A long-awaited measure to reform Georgia’s tax code surfaced during the session as House Resolution 900, given the name “fair tax.” This bill would allow Georgians to vote on a constitutional amendment that would eliminate nearly all state and local taxes, including property and sales taxes.

If enacted, HR 900 would replace these taxes with a comprehensive flat income tax of 5.75 percent, plus a new “business value-added tax” of 5.75 percent. The business value-added tax would function similar to a sales tax, but with very few exemptions. All current sales tax exemptions would be repealed by HR 900.

Georgia Farm Bureau officials expect much discussion on the tax issue in the coming months, and they say a study will be required to correctly assess its effect on agriculture.

The following bills affecting agriculture were passed by Georgia’s General Assembly:

• House Bill 2, Fair Annexation Act. This bill represents a compromise that was reached between the counties and cities on how annexation disputes are handled. It replaces the current non-binding annexation dispute resolution process with a binding one. Counties and unincorporated residents now have an avenue to have their concerns considered if they are negatively impacted by an annexation proposal.

• House Bill 78, Agritourism. This bill specifies that agritourism is allowed on property subject to the Conservation Use Value Assessment covenant. Some farmers have been charged with breaching their covenants by charging admission for agritourism events, and this bill will address that problem.

• HB 101, Animal ID Confidentiality. This bill provides that information collected for the national animal identification system (NAIS) is confidential and not subject to disclosure.

• HB 122, Equine Feed Labeling Requirements. This bill requires that a bag of equine feed must list its actual ingredients on the bag.

• HB 186, Energy Bill. The bill provides a five-year sales tax exemption for equipment and parts used in alternative fuel production and processing facilities.

• HB 247, Well Bill. This bill provides that citizens in rural counties with a good well may opt out of hookups and fees for countywide water service.

• HB 321, Family Interest and CUVA Limits. This bill codifies a recent court decision regarding the 2000 acre CUVA limitation. It will allow an individual who owns part interest in a farm to only have that percentage count against the 2,000-acre CUVA limitation.

• HB 424, “The Alligator Bill.” Language was borrowed from SB 239 to include some changes in workers’ compensation definitions relating to farm laborers. The term will now include persons employed in the raising, feeding and caring for wildlife.

• HB 536, Truck Weights. Legislators previously granted a 5-percent variance on truck weights when hauling agricultural products to market. This bill will clarify the variances applied to single axle, tandem axle and total gross vehicle weight. In addition, it will reduce fines for exceeding the variances.

• SB 116, Change Qualifications for Forestry Commission Director. This bill will strike one sentence from code regarding the Georgia Forestry Commission and thereby eliminate the current requirement that the commission director hold a bachelor of science degree in forestry.

• SB 157, Grants for E-85 Gasoline Retail. This bill directs the Board of Natural Resources to establish a grant program to fund the cost of E-85 (ethanol) projects at the retail level.

• SB 165, Commodity Commissions. This legislation will clear up concerns about the establishment of commodity commissions for soybeans, canola, pecans, corn and vegetables and will affirm these commissions in state law.

• SB 263, Georgia Soil & Water Conservation Commission District Supervisors. This bill changes the way GSWCC District Supervisors are chosen.

Meanwhile, the Alabama Farmers Federations says its growers won a big victory during the final hours of the state’s legislative session when Gov. Bob Riley signed HB 432, also known as the DOT Exemption Bill.

A coalition of the Alabama Farmers Federation, Alabama Cattlemen's Association, Alabama Poultry & Egg Association, Alabama Forestry Association and Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks have worked to get the legislation passed since the Alabama Department of Public Safety announced plans last year to require intrastate registration.

“Our members made passage of this bill a priority for the legislative session,” Federation President Jerry A. Newby says. “Farmers from throughout the state, along with our staff members, have spent countless hours on the phone and in the state house talking to legislators to educate them about the bill.

“The overwhelming support we received in both the House and Senate shows their work paid off. We believe these regulations were intended for large commercial trucking operations, not family farmers. The passage of this bill keeps additional burdens and expenses from being placed on farmers who are hauling their own livestock or crops within the state.”

Newby says the bill doesn’t weaken any existing safety laws, but exempts farmers from added expenses for signs, medical cards, log books and other new DOT requirements, which would not have resulted in any added benefit to public safety.

The bill states, “Nothing in this act shall be interpreted to exempt any person from obligations to operate a motor vehicle in a safe and proper manner or to observe the rules of the road.”

The House passed an earlier version of the bill which would have excluded all agricultural trucks as well as some other vehicles up to 26,001 pounds from U.S. Department of Transportation intrastate registrations.

The final version of the bill limits the DOT exemptions only to agricultural trucks, which must still abide by all other traffic laws and weight restrictions. The bill will take effect Sept. 1.

In other legislative action, hunting and fishing license fees in the state will increase next fall. The bill passed the Senate on the final day of the legislative session and was sent to Riley who is expected to sign the bill.

It raises the statewide hunting license fee from $16 to $24, and raises freshwater fishing license fees from $9.50 to $12. The increases will provide funding for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to hire 19 additional conservation officers. It also includes cost-of-living salary increases for department employees.

A compromise bill, supported by the Alabama Farmers Federation, requires $500,000 from new license sales to be earmarked for research and approved by the department’s advisory board.

Additionally, the compromise allows a $1 voluntary donation with license fees to be used for wildlife research. The bill becomes effective Sept. 1 if the governor signs it.

Legislators also passed a bill that will help reduce interest rates for farmers. The bill lowers loan rates for farmers at local banks by allowing the state treasurer to link agricultural loans from local banks to state deposits, thereby reducing interest rates for farmers and small businesses.

State Treasurer Kay Ivey worked with the Alabama Farmers Federation to secure passage of the bill which allows the state to invest a portion of state funds with participating banks in a below-market deposit, which links the deposit to a reduced-rate loan for eligible borrowers.

The linked deposit fixed-interest rate paid by the bank shall be 2 percent below the two-year constant maturity treasury rate.

Farmers or small businesses are only eligible for one linked deposit at any one time. The linked deposit amount shall not exceed $750,000 per borrower. The initial term shall be for two years and it may be renewed for three additional two-year terms. Riley is expected to sign the bill, which becomes effective Jan. 1, 2008.

Another bill approved by the legislature streamlines the filing of liens on farm products with the Alabama Secretary of State’s office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Known as the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) filing bill, it allows an original, reproduced copy or signed copy of an effective financial statement to be filed with the Secretary of State. The new law also removes the requirement that farmers must provide their Social Security number for UCC filings.

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