ATLANTA-- Alabama officials scrambled yesterday to deal with a possible $50 million yearly drain on the state budget, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision Monday that overturns the state's tax on out-of-state hazardous waste.
The levy, passed in 1990 by the Legislature to help the state balance its budget, imposes a $112 per ton fee on waste collected outside Alabama, $72 more than the per ton charge on in-state waste.
The nation's highest court found the state law in violation of the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause, holding that states cannot place a discriminatory tax on waste from outside their borders, even if the goal is to safeguard their citizens' health.
Terry Abbott, spokesman for Gov. Guy Hunt, said the U.S. Supreme Court has remanded the case back to the Alabama Supreme Court. He said the governor will ask the state's high court not to halt collection of the levy until the Alabama Legislature can meet to equalize in-state and out-of-state fees.
Officials are also concerned that the state may be forced to refund out-of-state fees already collected.
Revenues from the dumping fees account for about $25 million a year. But when the possible refund is added in, the total budget gap could reach $50 million, said Mike Murphy, a state Senate spokes-man. Alabama's total general fund budget for fiscal 1993, ending Sept. 30, is $800 million.
"Gov. Hunt's recommmendation is that the out-of-state fees remain the same, but the in-state fees be raised to meet them," he said. "The question right now, is the time frame."
Mr. Abbott, however, said Gov. Hunt has not called for a special session to deal with the problem. The Legislature will not meet in regular session until Feb. 1993.
One alternative to state legislative action, Mr. Abbott said, would be implementation of a federal law that would cover out-of-state dumping. The National Governors Association has passed a resolution supporting the two-tiered fees, he added.
Last year, a proposal before Alabama lawmakers to equalize the fees made little headway. The proposal, which would have set an 85 per ton charge on both in-state and out-of-state waste, stalled after the state supreme court ruled in favor of the two-tier fee structure. At the time, lawmakers said Alabama firms lobbied effectively against the bill.
In addition, state officials have not made a decision on the fate of a $45 million tax-exempt health-care bond issue that would have been backed by the levy, Mr. Abbott said. The Alabama Public Health Finance Authority had planned last year to offer the bonds, backed by the waste fee collections, but postponed the sale because of the court challenge.
Meanwhile, Gov. Hunt addressed the high court's ruling in a statement released Tuesday.
"The people of Alabama are very disappointed by the Supreme Court's action today," he said "However, this landmark case already has seen major victories in our fight to protect ourselves from becoming the hazardous waste dumping ground of the nation."
Last July, the state supreme court ruled that Alabama could maintain its waste fee structure. The ruling reversed a circuit court judge's February 1991 ruling that Alabama must set the same rates for both in-state and out-of-state waste.
The fee structure was originally designed to discourage dumping of out-of-state wastes at Emele, the world's largest toxic landfill. Emele is owned by Chemical Waste Management Co., which initiated the suit against the differential tax.
Like the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Joseph Phelps of the Circuit Court of Montgomery County held that the $72 per ton difference in fees was invalid under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.