By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
The Alabama House of Representatives voted to reject a constitutional amendment that would have made the Forever Wild program reimburse state, county, and municipal coffers for the loss of property tax revenue on the land that Forever Wild has purchased and taken off of the tax rolls.
House bill 362 was sponsored by state Rep. Mark Tuggle, R-Alexander City.
Tuggle said that Forever Wild receives $15 million a year from the Alabama Trustfund to purchase more property and normally rollover about $3 million of that which they don’t spend. On tap of that they have $33 million in the bank in their stewardship account. Tuggle said that Forever Wild makes enough money from its annual timber sales to pay the taxes. Forever Wild was renewed by the legislature and the voters in 2012 and will continue to draw $15 million a year from the Trust Fund through 2032.
Tuggle said that the AEA and the Association of School Superintendents both support this. Tuggle said that the County Commissions would be given the option as to whether they wanted the money or not. A County Commission could choose to opt out.
Tuggle said that the ten year average on the timber sales is $232,000 a year; which is enough to reimburse the governments for the last taxes. If Forever Wild does not get at least $10 million in acquisition money they would not have to pay any of the property taxes. The money would go to the state general fund (SGF), the county commissions, and schools systems across the state.
“I support Forever Wild,” State Rep. Reed Ingram, R-Montgomery, said. “It is one of the best things we can do but is paid zero in property taxes. Alabama is probably the lowest in ad valorum taxes. Then we give exemptions. Non-profits get exemptions, people reach a certain age and claim poverty and they get an exemption. If everybody could participate maybe then we could be whole. We are not passing a bill to raise taxes or make Forever Wild pay taxes we are passing a bill to let the people vote on it. Forever Wild has 200,000 acres out there that is paying no property taxes.
Tuggle said“I am not critical of Forever Wild. I am not critical of the board or the leadership; but we have unintended consequences. It is pulling money out of schools and sheriff’s offices.
Jackson asked why do they do not pay property taxes.
Tuggle said, “Because it is considered an asset of the state.” They would not pay taxes if this passes it would just require them to make a payment in lieu of taxes. Forever Wild has property in 29 counties. There is almost 12,000 acres of Forever Wild land in Coosa County. That has hurt Coosa County.
“This is one of the best bills in this session,” State Rep. John Roger, D-Birmingham, said. “The schools need every dime they can get. When Forever wild came up I opposed it because all I saw was people hunting.”
It became obvious that this bill was in trouble when it barely cleared a Budget Isolation Resolution, normally just a technicality, just 42-20. Jackson had invoked Rule 32 on this bill meaning that representatives can not vote for their absentee friends so only the legislators actually in the room could participate in this.
Tuggle said that at the request of Forever Wild he had modified the bill. The state taxes current use land based on its soil fertility with high fertility the highest. The bill had taxed all of the Forever Wild land as high fertility. The change allowed local revenue officials to set the fertility levels. The essence of the bill did not change.
State Rep. Ron Johnson, R-Sylacauga, said that the Coosa County school system is $877,000 in the red, and there are eleven more counties getting in the same situation. Enrollment has plummeted. When the new central high school was built there were over 1700 students in the system. Now there is only 900. There is a problem here and I don’t know how to solve it
State Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, said, “I support Forever Wild. At first I was very skeptical of this bill. The more I looked at it this does not kill Forever Wild. They have $22 million today in their spending authority. They have another $32 million in the stewardship fund.”
State Rep. Barry Forte, D-Eufaula, said, “I represent three different counties. Two of my counties oppose the bill. Why is the Conservation Department against this bill?
Tuggle said he wasn’t aware of their opposition.
“Over the summer I sat down with the opposition,” Tuggle said. “There are four different things they brought, and I have addressed them in this bill. I have received over 800 emails from people against this bill.”
State Rep. Tim Wadsworth, R-Arley, said that he represents Walker County which nearly filed bankruptcy last year and Winston County. Thousands of acres of Winston County are in the Bankhead National Forest and the Sipsey Wilderness Area. Those are federal land.
“Winston County receives tax in lieu money from the Bankhead National Forest like in your bill,” Wadsworth said.
Tuggle said that his bill is modeled on the federal standards.
State Rep. Randy Davis, R-Daphne, said that hunting and fishing brings money into the state.
Tuggle said that is bill is under a constitutional amendment because Forever Wild was created by a constitutional amendment.
State Rep. Kerry Richl, R-Guntersville, said that Forever Wild is a long-term thing.
HB362 was defeated Tuesday on a 38-26. While the measure had more votes in favor of than opposed, it did not have enough votes to pass a constitutional amendment thus failed.
It was a major victory for Forever Wild supporters which launched an incredibly aggressive grassroots effort to defeat this bill.