As we kicked of the 2019 Legislative Session, people got right to work in their committees. It is typical for committees to start off with testimony from witnesses who are directly involved in their applicable policy areas. This biennium with so many new people, it is especially important to bring folks up to speed, but it is always helpful for the veterans to have updated reviews.
House Agriculture and Forestry heard briefings from the Secretary of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM), Anson Tebbetts; the Commissioner of Forest Parks and Recreation, Michael Snyder; the Secretary of Natural Resources, Julie Moore; and staff members of the AAFM with expertise in water quality issues. We also had introductory visits from various groups who are instrumental in the agriculture and forestry worlds such as the Vermont Council on Rural Development, the Farm to Plate Initiative, Rural Vermont, the Vermont Fresh Network, and the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition. We received a dairy update from the AAFM that painted a dismal picture and a hemp update that painted a much rosier one. It will be our job to make a case for the importance and value of agriculture and forestry to the State of Vermont and to think of ways to promote a vibrant future for both sectors.
Last week I wrote about some of the significant challenges faced by farmers, in particular, dairy farmers. The same is true for the forestry sector as well. The last several years have seen a decline in prices paid for timber. Many of our processing facilities have closed and several low-grade plants in Maine have shut their doors as well, putting additional pressure on our loggers to find markets for the timber they harvest.
There is concern that young people will not look upon logging as a viable profession – logging is a potentially dangerous business with high workers’ compensation and other costs. However, the logger’s role in the Vermont economy is very important. The forest products sector represents $1.5 billion per year and more than 10,000 jobs to the state. All of us with land enrolled in the Use Value Appraisal, or Current Use, Program rely on loggers to help fulfill our forest management plans, which save us money on our property tax. People from out-of-state bring millions of tourism dollars to Vermont when they come to look at our leaves in the fall.
On top of its value to the economy, Vermont’s forests sequester nearly half of our carbon emissions and contribute to the health of our environment by cleaning the air and water – they are our atmospheric “scrubbers”. Our forests provide habitat connectivity for our wildlife and promote flood resiliency. Commissioner Michael Snyder will tell you that Vermont is “Forest Strong” and I believe we are richly blessed because of it.
I encourage people to follow our work by going to the legislative website at www.legislature.vermont.gov, click on “Committees”, and then on Agriculture and Forestry or any other committee in which you are interested. On that site you have access to all the documents that are presented to us as well as any bills that have been assigned to our committee. Documentation can be accessed by date, bill number, witness, other documents, or reports and resources. This should be true of most other committees in the Legislature
For those of you following Act 46, this week saw some important developments. Several bills were introduced, and more are coming. One bill proposes to extend the deadline for one year for school district mergers ordered by the State Board of Education. Another would require the Agency of Education to evaluate the successes and failures of Act 46. Still another proposes to place a moratorium on school district mergers ordered by the State Board of Education until legal matters are adjudicated. There is some overlap on the content of the bills but if they are taken up, which we hope they will be, the committee will take testimony and sort things out to develop a finished product.
On Thursday, we held a press conference attended by a couple dozen legislators with various concerns about Act 46. It was widely covered by the press and there seem to be some hopeful signs from leadership regarding a desired extension of the timeline. At the very least, we would like there to be a one-year extension during which the lawsuits can work their way through the courts. If districts are forcibly merged and the court finds that the mergers are illegal or have constitutional issues, unraveling those new districts would be extremely complicated. It is much better to push the pause button and wait to see what happens in the courts.
The timeline for the process has always been ridiculously aggressive with the State Board of Education issuing its final decision at the end of November and budgets having to be constructed, voted on, and warned by the third week in January in order to meet the deadline for a vote on Town Meeting Day. Other information critical to our budget was just released this week and I heard from a reporter at the State House, not the Agency of Education, that Windham would be receiving its Small Schools Grant. This does not instill confidence in the Agency and ends up requiring extra meetings in order to get the budget ready in a timely manner for the folks preparing the Town Report. We encourage people who care about this issue to contact their representatives, senators, and House and Senate leadership.