Proposed Alabama bill could induce new taxes on land trustBy Jennifer Johns | 02/28/2018 10:13pm
Alabama's Forever Wild Land Trust, an organization that purchases and maintains public lands for hunting, fishing, hiking and outdoor recreation, will have to pay added taxes if Alabama Rep. Mark Tuggle’s bill is passed.
Bill HB 362 proposes a constitutional amendment that would require Forever Wild to pay an ad valorem tax, a tax whose amount is based on the value of a transaction or of property, to counties for lost property taxes on lands purchased through the program.
“I think it’s a balanced bill,” Tuggle said. “I don’t think the bill has gotten a fair shake.”
Tuggle said the tax revenue would go to schools, the state general fund and veterans' assistance. Tuggle said current estimates indicate counties would earn about $400,000 from Forever Wild annually if the bill is passed.
Last year a similar bill was proposed, but it did not pass.
Forever Wild currently owns about 260,000 acres of land, with 37,000 of those acres located in the Black Warrior River basin, and the number is growing. Forever Wild said in a recent return on investment study every $1 invested to purchase lands returns $5 to the state.
Patti Powell, director of state lands in the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said people should be mindful that passing this bill opens the possibility to tax other non-taxable entities like other state-owned land.
“One misconception is that people think there is special treatment under the law, that Forever Wild is exempt from ad valorem taxes,” she said. “All state-owned property is not taxed.”
Under current law, Forever Wild cannot acquire land if it cannot pay 15 percent of its appraised value into its stewardship fund at the same time it is purchased. Powell said this system was set up so that the program would be self-sustaining.
“It can’t grow past what you can’t support,” she said.
In 2012, Alabama’s Forever Wild Land Trust program was renewed for another 20 years. In Tuggle’s bill, if Forever Wild is not renewed in 2032, it would get $1 million in annual funding.
Powell said there is significant concern that the 2032 renewal provision will cause Forever Wild to spend through the stewardship account.
“It puts the self-sustain model in jeopardy,” Powell said.
According to Tuggle’s bill, if Forever Wild is not renewed in 2032, timber sales from their protected lands would go into their stewardship account instead of the general funds account as it does now. Tuggle said the stewardship account is not accessible to the government.
Forever Wild currently has about $33 million in its stewardship account, which Powell said is necessary to generate the interest each year required to take care of the land.
Forever Wild also receives 10 percent of the interest from the Alabama trust fund which is made up of royalties from offshore oil and gas leases. Powell said Forever Wild can receive funding up to $15 million.
Caroline Mauldin, a junior majoring in secondary education, said she likes to go hiking with her friends, but doesn't have a set decision on how she feels about the bill.
“You just have to weigh the pros and cons and try to figure it out,” Mauldin said.
Allison Andrews, a freshman majoring in chemical engineering, said if Alabama is able to improve its education through funding, it should.
“I think education is more important than the upkeep of state land,” she said.
Tuggle said he has received support from the senate because the Forever Wild Trust won’t collapse with the passage of the bill.
“Forever Wild will continue to be a successful program,” Tuggle said.
Powell disagrees and said long-term, the bill passing would have a detrimental effect on taking care of the land, so they continue to fight the legislation.
“We will always endeavor this to be a successful program,” Powell said.