With 36 Alabama counties declared eligible for federal disaster assistance due to tornadoes and storms that ravaged the state on April 27, lawmakers took action to protect schools and homeowners.

The Legislature on Tuesday passed a joint resolution committing to work with Gov. Robert Bentley and state school officials to fund the rebuilding of damaged schools if insurance payments and federal aid do not cover the costs.

At least six schools were severely damaged, including three in hard-hit Tuscaloosa County, according to published reports.

“While it is unclear what funds will be needed to ensure our schools are rebuilt, passing this resolution sends a message to affected communities that the state will take care to ensure their school systems are made whole again,” said House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn.

Meanwhile, the House on Tuesday unanimously passed the Alabama Homeowners and Storm Victims Protection Act.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jack Williams, R-Vestavia, would protect the homestead exemptions of those homes that were destroyed or severely damaged by the recent storms, as well as future disasters, for up to two years.

“No homeowner should suffer tax liabilities simply because their house was in the path of a monster storm or suffered damage in any natural disaster,” Williams said.

Under current law, a structure that is destroyed, damaged, or uninhabitable as a result of a disaster loses its homestead exemption status on Oct. 1, which enables property tax assessments on the land to increase.

Williams’ bill allows the residential homestead exemption to be retained for up to two years as long as the property is being rebuilt or restored to a livable state. If repairs take longer than the two years property owners can submit documentation to the Department of Revenue and seek a 24-month extension.

The bill has been sent to the Senate for consideration.

Both chambers are working on the state budget for fiscal 2012, though some economists are predicting that the devastating tornadoes could slow overall economic recovery. The legislative session runs through mid-June.

In the governor’s office Tuesday, Bentley announced that Alabama would assume all non-federal costs for debris-removal for local governments using a private contractor or request assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Bentley said he understood that some local governments would struggle to pay for their share of the costs so the state would pick up the tab for 30 days on debris removal. Typically, the federal government will pay for 75% of debris removal with the remaining amount to be paid by local governments and the state.

That is expected to help severely cash-strapped Jefferson County, where officials have announced that damage estimates so far total about $400 million.

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