Legislative Report - February 12-22, 2013
Wednesday, 27 February 2013 20:14
The Vermont Legislature is buzzing with activity as committees work to pass bills out for vote before the upcoming Town Meeting week break. The crossover deadline for bills to be passed out of committee is March 15, with only finance-related bills given another week. After crossover, the Senate considers bills passed by the House and vice versa. While committees are working diligently to pass out bills for votes on the floor, new bills are still being introduced. At this time there are nearly 400 House bills and 140 Senate bills in the works.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VAAFM) presented its FY 2014 budget in several committees and it was positively received. VAAFM is proposing an increase in special funds income (taxes on seed, feed and fertilizer), which will pay for two new positions, a Policy Advisor, who will provide coordination of the agency’s enforcement efforts, and a Small Farm Operations Coordinator who will begin a small farms inspection program. This income will also fund contracts to assist with small farm outreach and inspections. The program will begin by focusing on the roughly 800 small dairy farms. VAAFM already has the authority and responsibility for small farm AAP compliance. Up to now this has been a complaint-driven process because the agency did not have adequate staff for an inspection program.
In the new year, VAAFM, DEC and NRCS convened an informal Agriculture Working Group composed farmers and technical assistance providers including VACD, Poultney-Mettowee NRCD and UVM Extension. The working group is following up on the recommendations gathered during twenty five consultative meetings held since the fall as part of the Act 138 Report preparation. The working group is helping the agencies develop regulatory and incentive systems that support small farm operations and ensure a level playing field on water quality standards for all Vermont farmers.
Seed, feed and fertilizer dealers and agricultural producers are not enthusiastic about the expected increase in their costs. The VAAFM budget is level funded for Conservation Districts, with $112,000 in base funding for districts, and $100,000 for the Agricultural Outreach Initiative.
On February 12th, the Agriculture Committees listened to reports on the progress and plans of the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative. With funding provided by Act 142 last year, the Working Lands Enterprise Board (WLEB) issued a request for proposals early this year to support enterprise investments, service providers, and infrastructure development in agriculture and forest products. The board received over $12m in requests for the $1m available in FY 2013. Governor Shumlin’s FY 2014 budget provides $1.5 m to continue this initiative, but the Vermont Working Lands Coalition is asking the legislature for $5 million per year over three years to strengthen the agriculture and forest products economy.
The House Agriculture Committee has been hearing testimony on H. 112: An act relating to the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering. Both Agriculture Committees held a forum on GMOs on February 15th with the Agricultural and Forestry Products Development Board. Supporters of the bill believe consumers have the right to know if their food is produced with genetically modifying technologies, and they believe that GMO labeling would enhance the Vermont brand. Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry’s testified in support of the bill. Similar bills have been introduced in the Vermont legislature over the past several years, and this year’s bill has been tweaked in hopes of withstanding law suits. Last year Monsanto threatened legal action if Vermont passed a similar bill, and Governor Shumlin decided not to support the bill due to the high cost of litigation. Many agricultural organizations support the GMO labeling concept in general. For example, the Vermont Farm Bureau supports voluntary labeling. Advocates feel that Vermont should show leadership in this regard, while others feel the GMO issue should be tackled at the national, not state, level.
The Agriculture Committees have also been considering draft legislation regarding the sale of raw milk at farmers’ markets, hemp growing, prohibition against docking the tails of horses and bovines, and the sale, transfer and importation of pets. They also received updates from the dairy industry, feed dealers and farmland conservation organizations during this period.
Two similar bills (H.131and S.83) regarding voluntary forestry harvesting standards are working their way through the legislature. These bills seem to be a response to criticisms of Chapter 87 of last year’s Energy Bill which (motivated by increased attention to biomass energy) included a chapter on harvesting guidelines. The chapter required that the Secretary of Natural Resources develop voluntary harvesting guidelines to ensure long-term forest health, make recommendations for a monitoring system, and suggest modifications to forest management plans for forestland in the Current Use program to ensure compliance with harvesting guidelines. Critics of Chapter 87, including the Vermont Woodlands Association, felt there was inadequate public input when the chapter was written, that increased regulation was unnecessary, and that the Current Use program should not be used as an enforcement vehicle. This year’s legislation gives the Commissioner of Forest Parks and Recreation more time (until September 2013) to develop the voluntary harvesting standards plus mandatory whole-tree procurement standards for state lands. The new bills also require public input while developing the standards, repeal the part of Chapter 87 that makes compliance with the new standards for forest landowners in Current Use mandatory, and authorizes the Commissioner and educational institutions to develop a logger outreach, education and training programs.
The forestry community is pleased with other developments over the past year, including the inclusion of forestry in the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative and the reconfiguration of the Agricultural Development Board to be the Agricultural and Forestry Products Development Board. In addition, the House Agriculture Committee has just had its purview expanded and name changed to the Agriculture and Forest Products Committee.
Much of the discussion of the Act 138 Water Quality Report has focused on the regulation of flood hazard areas, river corridors and stream alternation as a result of Vermont’s experience with Tropical Storm Irene. The following three bills are currently being considered by the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources:
H.223: An act relating to shoreland protection requirements for lakes. This bill would authorize the Secretary of Natural Resources to adopt rules and develop a permitting process for ground disturbances and development within shoreland zones adjacent to Vermont’s lakes. This authority was requested in the second part of the Act 138 Water Quality report, and DEC Commissioner David Mears and Lakes and Ponds Program Manager Susan Warren have provided testimony on this issue several times. Apparently Vermont lags behind many other states in providing this kind of protection for its lake shorelands.
H. 52: An act relating to municipal plans and flood resilience. This bill would require municipalities to include flood resilience plans as a part of their municipal plans, including identifying flood hazard and fluvial erosion hazard areas in consultation with ANR and developing polices and strategies to prevent future flood damage to persons and property.
H. 72: An act relating to accessory dwellings in flood hazard areas. This bill would allow towns to prohibit the construction of accessory dwelling in identified flood hazard areas.
So far no specific bills have been introduced to address the agricultural impacts on water quality, although several committees have heard testimony on this topic, particularly from Jim Leland and Laura DiPietro of the Agency of Agriculture’s Resource Management Division. As noted above, VAAFM’s proposed 2014 budget - which foresees beginning a small farm AAP inspection program - has been received favorably so far, and there had been some talk of increasing funding for this activity. Several legislators have noted that the Act 138 report indicates that investments in agricultural water quality programs would provide the highest return in terms of water quality improvements.
In testimony to the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, the Citizens Advisory Committee on Lake Champlain proposed a change to Current Use provisions in order to require self-reporting on compliance with AAPs for owners of agricultural land in the program. This self-reporting is already required of forest landowners in the Current Use program.
On February 22nd, four committees heard testimony on the Lake Champlain TMDL (House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources, House and Senate Agriculture, and Senate Natural Resources and Energy.) Steven Perkins, Director of Ecosystem Protection at USEPA Boston, described progress on the development of the Lake Champlain TMDL. DEC Commissioner David Mears praised the level of cooperation among state agencies and between EPA and the state, and provided an overview of the tools that the state has do address water quality concerns, including: permitting; land use policies and practices; wetlands, shoreland and floodplain protection programs, and funding mechanisms. He noted that the more permitting that is used, the more “credit” the state gets from EPA. At the same time, in response to criticisms that Vermont is not business-friendly, DEC is working to streamline its complex permitting processes. DEC scientist Eric Smeltzer provided a brief history of TMDLs. Jim Leland and Laura DiPietro of VAAFM reviewed the background of the Accepted Agricultural Practices and current programs to promote them. They highlighted the fact that agricultural use of land should be seen as a significant improvement to water quality rather than the problem, since contamination caused by developed land is usually significantly higher than that caused by agricultural land uses.
Climate Change, Energy and Act 250
The House and Senate Committees on Natural Resources and Energy held a second joint hearing on climate change on Thursday, February 14th. Speakers included Alan Betts, UVM Atmospheric Researcher, and high level officials from the Agency of Natural Resources, Agency of Transportation, and Public Service Board. Climate change was also addressed by Governor Shumlin, Senator Patrick Leahy, Representative Peter Welch and Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross at the NOFA Winter Conference the following weekend.
The Senate Natural Resources Committee dropped its proposed moratorium on large wind projects due to lack of support, and modified S.30 to require mandatory compliance with Act 250 criteria for siting energy projects larger than 500 kW. This change would require that the siting of large energy projects conform to town plans and it strengthens the voice of towns in the siting process. The revised bill would also prohibit the construction of commercial or electric generation projects on state forests and initiate a study of the potential economic, health and environmental issues associated with large-scale wind generation plants. According to vtdigger.org, “Although most of the committee members are happy with the legislation, representatives from the renewable energy industry say the bill goes too far and anti-wind activists say it doesn’t go far enough.”
Another bill H: 27, requires an Act 250 permit for the construction or improvement on oil pipelines.
The House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy has been working for weeks on H.216: An act relating to reducing energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions. This act would significantly expand energy efficiency programs and incentives throughout the state. On the evening of February 13th, the House and Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committees listened as leaders of 27 town energy committees described their communities’ efforts and interests in state policies and programs that will increase investments in heating efficiency, renewable energy, transportation choices and other energy-conserving measures.
In the context of extensive testimony regarding the respective authority of towns, state agencies, and the Public Service Board in the siting of electric generation plants and construction of oil pipelines, there have been calls for a review and update of Act 250. Advocates say that while Act 250 has had a very positive impact in terms of supporting appropriate development and protecting Vermont’s landscape, it was passed 40 years ago (before the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts) and requires updating. However no bill has been introduced calling for an Act 250 overhaul yet.
In her weekly legislative report, Karen Horn of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns reflected on the variety of bills and rule-making activities focused on land use planning. She noted that some of the bills and regulations give the state more authority, while others increase the authority and responsibility placed on towns and municipalities, and felt this could be confusing and challenging for volunteer town planners. “This important decision of whether the state will assume land use planning authority, provide local governments with the resources and authority to effectively shoulder that responsibility, or – the worst case – increase the duplicative, uncoordinated, expensive, time-consuming, and utterly confusing current system of state, regional, and local development and anti-development regulations may well be made by the 2013 legislature.”
Legislative Report - February 5-8, 2013
Tuesday, 12 February 2013 22:48
FEMA Refuses to Pay for DEC’s Strengthened Bridge and Culvert Standards After Irene
On Wednesday the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources held a long session on the FEMA Public Assistance Program. Most of the discussion centered on the fact that FEMA has refused to reimburse towns for the upgrade of Irene-damaged culverts and bridges to meet ANR’s more flood resilient standards. Currently 62 towns, most in the southern four counties of the state, are on the hook for roughly $8m in bridge and culvert repairs, plus another $11m in miscellaneous repairs including removal of debris from streams. Generally FEMA reimburses the reconstruction of culverts and bridges according to their previous design, or according to state standards. DEC’s improved culvert and bridge standards, aimed at maintaining stream equilibrium and allowing aquatic organism passage, do not require the towns to report construction of these new structures. FEMA has concluded that this means that state standards are not “consistently applied” and has disallowed these expenses. The state disagrees, has appealed this decision several times, and is awaiting the results of a final appeal.
Sue Minter (Deputy Secretary of Transportation and outgoing Irene Recovery Officer), Dave Rapaport (incoming Irene Recovery Officer), and Ben Rose (Vermont Emergency Management) explained that FEMA is expected to pay out approximately $300 million to Vermonters for Tropical Storm Irene. They praised and expressed gratitude to FEMA, noted unprecedented cooperation among state agencies after Tropical Storm Irene, and acknowledged critical support from Vermont’s Congressional delegation. They indicated that about 90% of the FEMA public assistance program (payments to towns and certain non-profits) went smoothly, with about 10% of projects unresolved.
Vermont’s Congressional delegation has been actively supporting the state’s case in Washington. Tom Berry (Senator Patrick Leahy’s Office) reported that the Super Storm Sandy legislation approved by the Senate in the last Congress included state-specific provisions for several states affected by natural disasters in addition to Sandy. The Vermont provisions addressed Tropical Storm Irene, including the Waterbury complex, removal of debris from streams, the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, and culverts and bridges. Unfortunately this legislation was not brought to the floor by the Speaker of the House before the end of the session. The Sandy legislation hastily passed by the new Congress was unfortunately stripped of all non-Sandy provisions.
Mike Kline (Rivers Program, Department of Environmental Conservation) and Rich Kim (Department of Fish and Wildlife) reviewed the history of culvert standards in Vermont and described the environmental and habitat impacts of inadequate culvert design during and after flood events, including a heart-wrenching video of trout not able get back upstream to spawn. They reported that, of 1,501 damaged culverts assessed in recent surveys, only 6% had adequate aquatic organism passage; 50% had no passage and 44% had reduced passage. Mike explained that his department is now developing a revised general permit that will require towns to report construction of new structures. In New Hampshire, FEMA has provided full reimbursements under similar rules.
The town representatives giving testimony expressed gratitude for Governor Shumlin’s promise that the state will reimburse any FEMA-eligible community match that exceeds a three cent on the dollar increase in property taxes. (At this time it is unknown is whether the state will reimburse expenses declared ineligible by FEMA.) Town representatives explained that they found themselves between a rock and a hard place when rebuilding structures after Irene. They were required to build to a higher standard by state permit requirements, but there was no guarantee that FEMA would reimburse the difference in cost between the higher standard and rebuilding the old structure.
David Weinstein (Senator Bernie Sanders’ Office) said, “The culverts are actually a great test case for this … because … putting the culverts back in place the way they were at taxpayers’ expense is just illogical. These culverts have proven to be inadequate. They blew out. What makes us thing they’re going to survive the next flood when they didn’t survive the last flood?”
FEMA’s response to the state’s appeal is due in March, and no further appeal is possible.
Renewed Interest in Statewide Land Use Planning
Wind power has stirred things up around Vermont, leading to the introduction of several bills aimed at strengthening public input into energy and other types of development planning. The House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy took testimony on H. 9, an act relating to a statewide land use plan. Testimony was give by Peg Elmer (an experienced planner who served in various leadership capacities over the years), Noelle MacKay (Commissioner, Department of Economic, Housing and Community Development,) and Peter Gregory (Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission.) The speakers provided an historical overview of land use planning in Vermont. Currently, towns that develop community plans may voluntarily submit their plans to Regional Planning Commissions for review and approval, thereby providing them access to important state and federal funding programs. RPCs receive key funding through the property transfer tax. Some years ago, RPCs were required to submit regional plans up to the state level through a central Council of Regional Commissions staffed by the Office of Planning, Research, and Coordination located in the Depart-ment of Administration. This was the mechanisms through which development statistics and local and regional plans were synthesized into a state-wide perspective. Funding for the state planning office was eventually cut and, in Peg Elmer’s view, land use planning has been weakened ever since. Peg provided the committee with a wealth of historical resources and earlier recommendations to review, and encouraged them to not reinvent the wheel in H. 9. Commissioner MacKay indicated that she (and the Governor) was not in favor of a centralized planning approach, but that she was working to improve the processes and mechanisms for planning at the local and regional levels. Among his several recommendations, Peter Gregory said that RPCs need their authority strengthened. All of the speakers agreed that Act 250 needs to be reviewed and updated.
Results Based Accountability
All legislators took time out of their regular schedule on Thursday morning to learn about “Results Based Accountability,” a system of documenting results. Author Mark Friedman presented a simple, comprehensible framework. He distinguished between results desired for whole populations (e.g. children, the elderly) and results sought for specific client populations. He also sifted through the jargon of results, outcomes, indicators, benchmarks, and performance measures and clarified different ways to evaluate ends and means. His framework can be easily applied to any program.
Act 138 Water Quality Report
The House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources continued to take testimony on the Act 138 Water Quality Report, with a focus on regulation of flood hazard areas, river corridors, and stream alteration. Next week Representative David Deen will introduce legislation to address lakeshore development as addressed in the second part of the Act 138 Report and requested by DEC Commissioner David Mears earlier in the session.
Legislative Report - January 27-February 1, 2013
Saturday, 09 February 2013 18:16
This week House Speaker Shap Smith followed through on his reelection promise to engage the legislature in a discussion of climate change. On Wednesday morning, January 30th, over twenty people testified to the House and Senate Committees on Agriculture, and the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy on the effects of climate change on Vermont’s businesses. On Wednesday afternoon, climate activist Bill McKibben addressed the full House of Representatives and gave testimony to the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development.
McKibben reviewed some of the science behind climate change, noting that human activity has already raised the temperature of the planet by one degree Celsius, and that an increase to two degrees and beyond is likely to be devastating. He cited the melting of the Arctic ice sheet and increasing acidity of the earth’s oceans as indicators of the loss of stability of the earth’s ecosystem and our current ecological state of “emergency.” He explained that a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture and leads to more rainfall and extreme weather events as we’ve seen throughout the US and in Vermont in recent years. He also reported that “agronomists estimate that from this point on, each degree increase in global temperature will cut grain yields by 10%. Try to imagine our earth with 40% fewer calories.”
McKibben spoke highly of Vermont’s leadership in continuing efforts to reduce global warming while adapting to the climate change that is already occurring. “Just as we adapt to that which we can’t prevent, we also have to prevent that to which we can’t adapt.” He advocated for a dramatic reduction in dependence on fossil fuels, a reduction of sprawl, and investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and public transportation.
In the morning session, leaders of state agencies as well as businesses and farmers discussed the impacts of climate change on their operations. In addition to the obvious flood damage cause by Tropical Storm Irene and other flood events, some the negative impacts mentioned included:
- lack of snow for ski and snow mobile industry
- shorter maple sugaring season
- decline in honey production
- unpredictability in agricultural production
- higher grain prices on the national/international market
- spread of invasive species
- change of forest tree species (loss of hardwoods)
- spread of insects contributing to increases in EEE, Lyme disease and agricultural damage
- high repair expense for electric companies due to damaging winds
- high repair expense for road crews due to flooding, freezing and thawing
The speakers also discussed their adaptations to and possible benefits of climate change, including:
- spring tourism and four-season resorts
- reduced heating bills
- more locally-grown hay
- ability to grow longer-season varieties of fruits and vegetables
- innovations in manure management (methane digesters)
- innovations in energy
Overall, the speakers emphasized increased risk, uncertainty and vulnerability, and the need for individuals, communities and state government to come together to continue to adapt to climate change and slow future global warming.
The other big event of the week was the Vermont Farm Show, attended by members of the Agricultural Committees, where various producer associations held annual meetings and Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Diane Bothfeld provided an update on dairy concerns. Later in the week the House Committees on Agriculture and Education heard the results of a food system workforce needs study commissioned through Farm to Plate, and the House Agriculture Committee heard testimony on visa issues related to temporary agricultural workers. The Senate Committee on Agriculture learned more about formaldehyde on farms and discussed maple products labeling. The House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources continued to receive testimony on the Act 138 Water Quality report, and began to discuss two bills related to municipal planning and flood resilience. The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy discussed S. 21, calling for a moratorium on the construction of commercial wind turbines, and S. 30, prohibiting the construction of wind turbines on public lands and without the consent of local residents. The Senate Appropriations Committee wrapped up discussions of the proposed 2013 Adjustment to the State Budget, while the House Appropriations Committee began hearing testimony on the Governor’s proposed 2014 Budget.
Legislative Report - January 22-25, 2013
Sunday, 03 February 2013 22:16
The main event in the Vermont Legislature this week was Governor Shumlin’s Budget Address for FY 2014, which begins July 1, 2013. The Governor laid out his plan to close the $67 million budget gap estimated for next year, and emphasized new investments in the areas of education, health care, transportation, and energy. Governor Shumlin also proposed changes to the welfare system aimed at supporting working Vermonters.
Here’s a quick summary of the annual state budget process thanks to the Department of Finance and Management:
The state budget is developed by the Budget and Management Division of the Agency of Administration. Generally, at the beginning of the annual cycle in the summer, this division is considering three budget years at a time - the year that just ended (i.e. 2012), the current year (2013) and the upcoming year (2014.)
At the end of the fiscal year (July/August), the Budget and Management staff reviews the financial data for each agency, department and program. This provides insight into how state government raises revenues and spends tax dollars, and may result in recommended adjustments to the current budget as well as guidelines for the upcoming year. The results of this analysis are reviewed with the Governor and his staff.
In September/October, instructions are given to each agency and department, with a budget allocation for the coming fiscal year. These guidelines generally reflect the Governor’s priorities. Agencies and departments then construct their budgets, which are tweaked by Budget and Management Division staff. This year, for the first time ever due to a bill passed by the Vermont Legislature last session, Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding held two state-wide public forums on the budget in November to solicit public input prior to finalization of the Governor’s budget.
In general, most of the decisions regarding the Governor’s budget are made by mid-December, but this year Governor Shumlin delayed his budget address by a week in order to gain a better understanding of the federal funds available to the state. The Governor’s proposed 2014 budget is 35% funded by federal funds.
The Governor’s proposed budget, comprised of a draft appropriations bill and a budget book, is not made public until his budget address to the Vermont General Assembly at the State House in January. This initiates the appropriations process in the both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. Each committee develops its own recommendations, which are passed by the House and Senate respectively. Then a Budget Conference Committee, composed of three members from the House and three from the Senate, is established to resolve any differences and develop a single appropriations bill. Once this bill is passed by both the House and Senate, it is sent to the Governor to be signed into law. When the budget becomes law, implementation begins. Authorized budgets are entered into the state accounting system, spending starts on July 1, and the cycle begins again.
Back to conservation in 2014 …
In their proposed budgets, the Agencies of Natural Resources and Agriculture are gradually working their way back to staffing levels that were in place prior to the recession that began in 2008. ANR’s budget includes three new foresters, one administrator, and five staff dedicated to environmental protection. The Agency of Agriculture’s budget includes one new position focused on water quality on small farms. VAAFM’s budget also includes increased funding for the Vermont Working Landscape Enterprise Fund ($1.5 million) and level funding for Conservation Districts ($112,000.) Additional funds were also added to the VAAFM budget for mosquito control to prevent West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis.
This week the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources hosted a joint committee hearing with the House and Senate Agriculture Committees on the Act 138 Water Quality Report. The committees heard from David Mears, Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation; Kari Dolan, DEC Ecosystem Restoration Program Manager; Chuck Ross, Secretary of Agriculture; Laure DiPietro, Deputy Director of VAAFM Agricultural Resource Management; Gina Campoli, Environmental Policy Manager at the Agency of Transportation; and Mark Perrault, Senior Fiscal Analyst at the Joint Fiscal Office. Secretary Ross noted that the problem of phosphorus loading in Lake Champlain was created due to “poorly informed public policy over decades” and that it will take years to clean up the lake. Legislators asked whether the focus should be primarily on agriculture because the budget in the report for agricultural water quality improvements was relatively low and could have a large impact. Kari Dolan and other speakers emphasized that water quality problems are created by all of us – homeowners, urban development, industry sewage treatment, and agriculture – and that everyone needs to contribute to the solution. The speakers emphasized the importance of identifying “hot spots,” or critical source areas, and focusing remediation efforts in those locations in order to get the biggest bang for the buck. The Act 138 Water Quality Report is so far-reaching that legislators expressed the need for more guidance from the agencies on where to focus their efforts.
Laura DiPietro provided the committees with an update on agricultural water quality issues and initiatives over the past year, including the Lake Champlain TMDL, the inter-agency MOU initiated by NRCS, the Missisquoi Bay critical source area study and subsequent BMP implementation program, and the development of a certainty program. She mentioned the important roles of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Conservation Districts. As a follow up to the numerous consultative meetings held with farmers around the state, an advisory Agricultural Working Group has been formed to delve deeper into policy issues and make recommendations for policy and practice changes – especially to address water quality concerns on small farms. This group, led by VAAFM, ANR and NRCS, is composed of producers and technical assistance providers, including VACD and UVM Extension.
Also this week, Congressional staffers Tom Berry (Senator Patrick Leahy), Patricia Coates (Representative Peter Welch) and Jenny Nelson (Senator Bernie Sanders) addressed the House and Senate Agriculture Committees on developments in Washington, including the Farm Bill, 2014 budget, and immigration reform.
Legislative Report - January 15-18, 2013
Tuesday, 22 January 2013 12:22
This past week the Agriculture Committees and House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee in the Vermont Legislature focused primarily on learning about the accomplishments and priorities of various agencies and organizations. The Secretaries of Agriculture and Natural Resources provided overviews of their programs and key policy concerns, and under-secretaries, commissioners and staff went deeper. In addition, several organizations and an individual were invited to give presentations including VACD, the Farm Fresh Network, NOFA, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (Farm to Plate) and James Maroney.
Of most immediate interest to Conservation Districts, Kari Dolan, Manager of the Ecosystem Restoration Program of the Agency of Natural Resources Department of Environmental Conservation, provided an overview of the Act 138 Water Quality Report to the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee. The report calls for $156 million in annual investments over and above current programs to address water quality concerns in four areas: 1) municipal operations for nonpoint source pollution reduction, agricultural and forestry operations for nonpoint source reduction, 3) river, floodplain, and lake shoreland management and 4) municipal infrastructure and regulated stormwater programs. The report presented 16 possible measures for raising revenue for these activities, including state-wide stormwater fees, increased property taxes, and increased income taxes. It outlined several possible structures for managing a Water Quality Trust Fund, and made many program recommendations, including implementing a small farm operation (SFO) inspection program and completing initial river corridor assessments throughout the state on an accelerated schedule. Finally, the report highlighted the potential state-wide implementation capacity of Conservation Districts, Regional Planning Commissions, and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Representative David Deen, Chair of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee expressed disappointment that draft legislation was not included in the report, but promised to take up the report immediately, which he has done.
Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears and Chief of DEC’s Lakes and Ponds Management Section Susan Warren presented a supplemental Act 138 Report which expressed serious concern about improper development along lake shore lands and called for strengthening of policies to protect them. They said Vermont is behind other New England states in developing these policies. The key problem is not people living along shore lands, but removing too many trees and other vegetation right next to the water, which is leading to serious sedimentation and infiltration problems. Representative Deen asked DEC to combine this report with the full Act 138 report, which will be done.
In the House and Senate Agricultural Committees,Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets Chuck Ross outlined the agency’s work and priorities in five areas: 1) jobs, 2) day-today operations, 3) current state issues, 4) cross-cutting policy issues, and 5) Federal issues. Concerning cross-cutting policy issues, Secretary Ross described the gray area between a farm and an enterprise, and highlighted the need to consider a new designation - “rural enterprise” - that would support the viability of agricultural enterprises while bringing them at least partially into the world of zoning and Act 250 permits that govern non-agricultural enterprises. Concerning water quality Secretary Ross said, “People often ask me, ‘How can the agency take on both a regulatory and agricultural development role?’ My reply is, ‘They are one and the same thing when they’re done right.’” He emphasized that water quality protections enhance the quality and marketability of Vermont’s agricultural products.
In the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, David Mears, Commission of the ANR Department of Environmental Conservation outlined the functions of his department and emphasized five prime areas for further public policy development: 1) ground water and surface water, 2) brownfields redevelopment, 3) aquatic ecosystem protection (including Lake Champlain, Lake Memphremagog and the Connecticut River watershed), 4) post-Irene/public awareness of river dynamics, and 5) climate change.
Michael Snyder, Commissioner of ANR’s Forest Parks and Recreation Departmentreviewed their programs and expressed the desire to see common ground found between the various constituents utilizing Vermont’s forests and parks. He said that Act 170 has some important forestry provisions, and that there will be a proposal to the House Rules Committee to change the House Agriculture Committee into an Agriculture and Forest Products Committee. This reflects the working landscape economic development focus as indicated by the Vermont Working Landscape Enterprise Board for example.
Patrick Berry, Commission of ANR’s Fish and Wildlife Department,provided an overview of his department’s work, and Mike Kline, Manager of ANR-DEC’s Rivers Program, gave a lesson in river dynamics and the important policy implications of taking a longer view.
Closer to home, Poultney-Mettowee NRCD supervisor Philip Ackerman-Leist and colleagues from Green Mountain College described to the House Agriculture Committee their ordeal related to oxen Bill and Lou. The committee reflected on the importance of increasing agricultural literacy throughout the United States, as now only a tiny percent of the population is engaged in agriculture and many people do not understand the reality of where their food comes from.
Legislative Report - January 9-11, 2013
Monday, 14 January 2013 19:46
The 2013-2014 biennium of the Vermont Legislature opened last week with ceremonies, election of officers, committee appointments and Governor Shumlin’s inaugural address.
On opening day Shap Smith was unanimously re-elected Speaker of the House. In his acceptance speech he emphasized the importance of understanding the impacts of global climate change and indicated that the Committee on Natural Resources and Energy will work with the Committee on Commerce and Economic Development to “learn the details of the effects of climate change, to learn what measures are being taken to adapt to this change and how we can lead the charge to prevent future degradation of our environment by moving toward reducing and eliminating carbon-dependent energy use.” He also said, “We must … work to ensure that one of our state’s most precious resources, our own great Lake Champlain, is restored to its natural beauty.”
Also on opening day, thirty two organizations and businesses comprising the Blue Resolution Coalition, held a press conference and called for deeper investments to improve Vermont’s water quality, receiving press coverage. This group includes, for example, Lake Champlain International, the Conservation Law Foundation, and the Lewis Creek Watershed Association.
Governor Shumlin’s inaugural address emphasized strengthening Vermont’s educational system to enhance the state’s competitiveness and long-term economic viability. In his speech he praised Vermont’s agricultural community, “We know that Vermont farmers grow the healthiest food in the nation.”
New committee assignments for the House were announced on opening day. The House Committee on Agriculture leadership remains unchanged, with Carolyn Partridge of Windham Chair, Richard Lawrence of Lyndon Vice Chair, and Will Stevens of Shoreham Ranking Member. John Bartholomew of Hartland became Clerk, and Tess Taylor of Barre City and Teo Zagar of Barnard will also continue to serve. Harvey Smith of New Haven returned to the committee after a hiatus, and the four new members are Dan Connor of Fairfield, Linda Martin of Springfield, Kristina Michelsen of Hardwick, and Tristan Toleno of Brattleboro
David Deen of Westminster and Jim McCollough of Williston will again serve as Chair and Vice Chair respectively of the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources. Bob Krebs of South Hero and Kate Webb of Shelburne will continue to serve on this committee as well. The five new members are Steve Beyor of Highgate (Ranking Member), Willem Jewett of Ripton, Mark Huntley of Cavendish, Connie Quimby of Concord, and Thomas Terenzini of Rutland Town.
The leadership of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy also remains unchanged, with Tony Klein of East Montpelier Chair, Margaret Cheney of Norwich Vice Chair, and Bill Canfield of Fair Haven Ranking Member. Tim Jerman of Essex Junction remains Clerk and Rebecca Ellis of Waterbury Center, Michael Hebert of Vernon, John Malcolm of Pawlet, Betty Nuovo of Middlebury, and Mike Yantachka of Charlotte continue to serve. The two new members of this committee are Mary Feltus of Lyndon and Curt McCormack of Burlington.
The House Committee on Appropriations remains essentially unchanged except Peter Fagan of Rutland City is a new member and Kitty Toll of Danville has become Clerk. The remaining continuing members are Martha Heath of Westford (Chair), Mitzi Johnson of South Hero (Vice Chair), Bob Helm of Fair Haven (Ranking Member), Kathleen Keenan of St. Albans City, Ann Manwaring of Wilmington, Alice Miller of Shaftsbury, Anne O’Brien of Richmond, Chuck Pearce of Richford, and Philip Winters of Williamstown.
Senate committee appointments were announced on Friday. The Senate Committee on Agriculture was revamped, with only Robert Starr of North Troy remaining from last biennium and becoming Chair. The three new members are David Zuckerman of Hinesburg (Vice Chair), Christopher Bray of New Haven (Clerk) and Norm McAllister of Franklin.
The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy was also overhauled, with all new members: Robert Hartwell of Manchester Center (Chair), Diane Snelling of Hinesburg (Vice Chair), Peter Galbraith of Townshend, Mark MacDonald of Williamstown, and John Rodgers of Glover.
The Senate Committee on Appropriations was less shaken up, with Jane Kitchel of Danville remaining Chair. Alice Nitka of Ludlow continues to serve from last biennium and has become Vice Chair. Dick Sears of North Bennington, Diane Snelling of Hinesburg, and Robert Starr of North Troy also continue to serve. The two new members are Sally Fox of South Burlington and Richard Westman of Cambridge.
All representatives, committee members and calendars are listed on the Vermont Legislature website.