It’s hard to believe that Town Meeting is here – time has certainly flown this Session. I look forward to visiting with folks at all of the Town Meetings in my district. On Saturday, Rep. Matt Trieber and I will attend the Westminster Town Meeting at Bellows Falls Union High School and the Rockingham Town Meeting on Monday evening at the Bellows Falls Opera House. Tuesday will see us starting in Brookline at 10 AM and heading north to Athens, Grafton, and Windham. We then go on to Bellows Falls where we visit with voters at the polls. Additionally that evening, we will be holding an information meeting regarding the FY2016 budget at the Bellows Falls Library from 6-7 PM. It is open to the public and all are encouraged to attend.
What I love about Town Meeting is that it is the truest, most basic, form of democracy. It is a chance for people to speak their minds and for us to visit with folks on their home ground and hear what they are thinking about. After all, together, we govern!
What weighs heaviest on many of the legislators’ minds is the FY 2016 budget. In order to meet a $23-29 million reduction target range, we are looking at some drastic cuts that will have a significant impact on many Vermonters. In fact, there is a list of what we are calling the “big uglies” – proposals that are on the table that are causing many of us great concern. Included on the list, for example, is the elimination of funding for the Vermont Council on the Humanities, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Vermont Arts Council, Vermont Public Television, the Vermont Women’s Commission, and the Vermont Historical Society. Also included on the list are difficult cuts to Human Services, general government, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and what is left of the money ($500,000) for the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative. Other proposals being considered are the closure of the Vermont Veterans’ Home and the Windsor Prison.
For those of us on the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee (HAFPC), the total elimination of the money to the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative is particularly painful. We have witnessed the amazing results of the grants and technical support offered by the program. The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund has been tracking food system investment results since the Farm to Plate Initiative was created by the Vermont Legislature in 2009. If you go to www.vsjf.org and click on Vermont’s Food System: Relocalize it!, you will see some of the remarkable statistics:
• 4,189 new jobs (7.2% increase) were created in the food system from 2009 to 2013.
• For every 1 food system job created there are 1.28 additional jobs created in Vermont.
• From 2007 to 2012 food system economic output expanded 24%, from $6.9 billion to $8.6 billion.
• 665 new farms and food businesses (5.9% increase) were launched in the food system from 2009 to 2013.
We have great momentum going; other states are in awe of what we have done with the local foods movement, we are exporting cheese to France! It would tragic to lose that momentum when there is so much more to gain. One proposal being made by some of us in the Legislature is a ½ to 1% increase in the Rooms Tax depending on what we want to cover. One half percent would be enough to fully fund the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative with a little left over. One percent would be enough to fund Working Lands, the agricultural portion of the water quality bill, as well as other agricultural efforts that we hold near and dear such as the Agricultural Fairs and Farm to School, which have been either eliminated or reduced significantly.
What is the nexus of an increase in the Rooms Tax to agriculture and water quality? That’s easy. Tourists come to the state for the beauty of our pastoral lands – to hunt, fish, sightsee, recreate, etc. What keeps our pastoral lands pastoral? The farmers, foresters, loggers, and landowners who work their land and keep it undeveloped. Lake Champlain brings in millions of dollars of tourism money. We could call this an Agricultural or Rural Heritage Tax.
An additional argument would be that it would be paid by folks who are coming to our state from elsewhere. They would be helping to make an investment in the continued beauty of the place they love to visit. It is also highly doubtful that vacationers would make a judgment about where they choose to go based on the Rooms Tax.
The good news is that the HAFPC voted out the agricultural sections of H.35, the Water Quality bill. Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs) will be revised and eventually small farms will be required to be certified. The certification process will include the need for a Nutrient Management Plan and an assessment of how well a farmer is following the AAPs. The intent of the bill is to help farmers improve, if necessary, in order to reduce nutrient runoff into our waterways. While it does give the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets additional enforcement power, the hope it that they will not have to use it. The goal is to clean up the waterways of our state – H.35 is another step in that continuing effort.