Alabama: A session unlike any other

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Alabama: A session unlike any other

By Ashley Robinson

Alabama lawmakers have never seen a legislative session like the one that took place this year. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forced lawmakers to end Alabama’s 2020 legislative session early, causing several issues to fall by the wayside.

Legislators took a nearly two-month break during the COVID-19 outbreak, returing to Montgomery on May 4to pass state budgets and a few other bills before the regular session concluded May 18. Wearing masks and sitting apart, lawmakers gathered without lobbyists in the hallways or members of the public filling the galleries.

“Once lawmakers came back, the building was not open to the public … which was pretty unusual, especially taking on something as important as the budgets,” says Leigha Cauthen, Alabama Agribusiness Council executive director.

FUNDING FOR AGRICULTURE
Due to the shortened timeframe, Education Trust Fund and General Fund budgets and local legislation were lawmakers’ top priorities.

The General Fund budget, at almost $2.4 billion, will greatly benefit the state’s agriculture industry. Under the proposed plan, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries (ADAI) will receive almost $15 million, including $100,000 in new appropriations for the North Alabama Agriplex, $130,000 for the industrial hemp program and $120,000 allocated to the Farm to School program. In addition, the new Sweet Grown Alabama state agricultural brand received $250,000.

Sweet Grown Alabama, which launched on March 13, is a non-profit organization that connects farmers in the state to retailers and consumers. Growers can market their produce anywhere in the state. The online database allows consumers to find farmers in their area. Farmers’ profiles include their location, products grown, social media links, website links and how consumers can buy their products.

In addition, the Soil and Water Conservation Committee will receive $2.9 million, including more than $81,000 in matching funds for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program to increase on-farm irrigation.

“I think the ADAI was pleased with this year’s funding. At the beginning of the session we were all optimistic about the budgets, but as COVID-19 unfolded, the budgets fell back to the same funding levels as last year,” Cauthen said. “But, some new money made its way to the ag department, so that’s great that those needs were met even as the budget was being scaled back.”

BILLS LEFT HANGING IN THE BALANCE
Unfortunately, none of the bills that were of particular interest to Alabama agriculture were passed by the Legislature during the session.

“We lost a couple of good bills that were left hanging in the balance, but it also kept some bills from passing that could have been detrimental to the agriculture industry,” said Cauthen.

She expects special sessions later this summer or into the fall to take up additional important issues of the state. But, for the most part, she expects to see the bills she was tracking reintroduced during next year’s session.

For a complete list of the bills being tracked by the Alabama Agribusiness Council, visit www.alagribusiness.org.

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