The pace at the State House continues to be hectic as we approach the crossover deadline for money committee action. Several major bills are in process including the Water Quality, Education, and Health Care bills, as well as the Budget, or “Big Bill”, itself. The budget picture isn’t any brighter and we all dread some of the hard choices that will have to be made.
On the bright side, Tuesday was the day for children in the State House. Students from the Wardsboro School came to testify in favor of the effort to make the Gilfeather turnip the State Vegetable (H.65). They were dressed in Gilfeather turnip tee-shirts and gave a wonderful presentation, each child giving a short piece that, combined, made a very strong case for why the Gilfeather should receive the honor.
One of the student’s testimonies was: “Please remember that the Gilfeather turnip is a fitting symbol for Vermonters. Some of us come from many generations of living in Vermont and some of us moved here two months ago – but like the Gilfeather turnip, we are tough-skinned, we put down strong roots, and after a tough challenge like a killing frost, we come out sweeter! We are all Vermonters and like the Gilfeather turnip, we are Vermont Strong”.
That same day, two fifth graders from the Edmunds Elementary School in Burlington came to testify regarding H.236, a bill that would ban the use of a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Chris Pearson, started with an introduction of the bill and turned the witness seat over to Zoe Rose Hecht who, with great poise, gave excellent testimony. There is a growing body of evidence that neonicotinoids are having a devastating effect on the bee population. Bees are important to the pollination of most of the plants that provide us with food and without them, the world would be a much different and hungry place.
Zoe’s testimony can be viewed by going to the legislative website, www.legislature.vermont.gov, and clicking on the committee page for House Agriculture and Forest Products. Under “Documents and Handouts” click on “Date” for March 17, 2015 and then for the testimony of Zoe Rose Hecht. I suggest this exercise because it is great practice to find all of the documents and testimony we have received on every issue we have worked on. This offers great transparency and opportunity for the public to follow all of the work we do.
As a result of the so-called “beagle bill” (S.25, which would have recognized the beagle the State Dog), there are those who have expressed the thought that naming a State Vegetable is a waste of time, but I strongly disagree. The children who are participating in this exercise are learning a very valuable lesson – how their government works and how they can effect change. This is something they will remember for the rest of their lives – doing something is how one learns best. To quote Confucius “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” It is an honor to be part of that learning process and certainly brightens up our day to have children in the State House. During this very stressful budget-building time, it reminds me, firsthand, of why we are working so hard for an even better Vermont future.
We also took testimony on H.426, regarding raw milk this week. The bill significantly expands opportunities for raw milk sales as well as the production and sale of lightly processed dairy products. There is great polarization on this issue and we have tried hard to take balanced testimony from both sides. I suspect that some of the provisions will make it through the process while others may not.
My friends and counterparts, Rep. Tara Sad (Walpole) and Rep. Bob Haefner (Hudson) from New Hampshire came to the State House for a visit this week and agreed to testify on their raw milk bill. They are currently the Ranking Member and Chair, respectively, of the Environment and Agriculture Committee. New Hampshire’s raw milk law allows for licensed facilities to sell lightly processed products at retail, as well as at farmers’ markets. Their much more liberal law has been in place for four years without incident. We will continue to take testimony and potentially tee up a version of the bill for passage early next year.
Members of the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee (HAFPC) have been very concerned that the funding for the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative has been severely cut and is, in fact, on the list that we call the “big uglies”, which could mean complete elimination. Given its track record for job creation and increased economic output, it would be tragic to lose this successful program.
In an attempt to find a funding source, the HAFPC sponsored a tri-partisan committee bill, H.485, which would raise the Rooms Tax by one half a percent and create the Agriculture and Rural Heritage Special Fund. Enough revenue would be raised to fully fund the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, the Agricultural Fair Stipends, and the Farm to School program. Statistics regarding Working Lands included in the findings for the bill say it all: 4,189 new jobs (a 7.2 percent increase) were created in the food system from 2009 to 2013. For every one food system job created, there are 1.28 additional jobs created in Vermont. From 2007 to 2012, food system economic output expanded 24 percent, from $6.9 billion to $8.6 billion. 665 new farms and food businesses (a 5.9 percent increase) were launched in the food system from 2009 to 2013. While I suspect the chances for our bill to become law are slim, we had to make an effort for this important initiative.