In this last week of the 2018 Legislative Session, the pace has picked up and things are moving very fast. It is my favorite time of the year because a lot can get done in a short period of time.
It was a good week for the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee in that we were able to pass our Rural Economic Development bill, S.276, on a unanimous vote. The bill covers a lot of ground from industrial parks to trails to logging equipment to energy efficiency. It is a comprehensive bill in which all of the provisions are intended to spark rural development in our great state. There were some “housekeeping” provisions included as well.
What do we hope to achieve by passing this bill? We know that there are areas in Vermont with healthy, thriving communities but there are others that are struggling. Our goal is to promote and give incentive to some of those rural regions so that they, too, can realize a strong, healthy future.
How can we make things better? We believe that the measures included in the bill will offer opportunities to overcome some of the challenges faced by our rural neighbors and our working landscape. In recent weeks, I have written a lot about the challenges faced by our agricultural and forestry sectors. Hopefully, some of what we included in the bill will help alleviate some of the concerns.
One of the great pleasures in putting the bill together was working cooperatively and collaboratively with the other committees of jurisdiction. Our goal was to gain approval and support from those committees, as well as the stakeholders involved with these various areas. Because it is an economic development bill, we worked closely with the Commerce and Economic Development Committee. Additionally, we worked with Rep. David Deen and the Natural Resources, Fish, and Wildlife Committee.
As a result of the multi-partisan collaboration, rules were suspended, the bill was put through all remaining stages of passage, and the Senate concurred with our work.
An important component of S.276 is language regarding hemp. One of the stumbling blocks to hemp cultivation at this point is the ability to acquire quality seed. The language included brings our hemp program into compliance with the 2014 federal Farm Bill. This will allow for easier access to the seed that farmers need. It also allows for testing and provides an avenue for farmers if their hemp tests at a higher level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentrations than allowed (.3%). Growers may enter into an agreement with a medical marijuana dispensary to extract the THC and then get their crop back to extract the cannabidiol (CBD), which is being used in many products and is reported to have healing properties.
In an attempt to help our forest products sector we included a sales tax exemption for advanced wood boilers. This will be paid for with money from the Clean Energy Fund and the exemption will last for three years. We also exempted logging equipment from the Purchase and Use Tax. Last year we created an exemption from the Sales and Use Tax thinking that all logging equipment would be covered but some have axles and wheels so we were back at the drawing board to remedy the oversight.
The bill asks the Agency of Commerce and Community Development to report back to us with recommendations for establishing an economic development program under which defined parcels in rural areas of the State are designated as industrial parks for the purposes of providing regulatory and permitting incentives to businesses sited within the industrial park.
We ask the legislative Commission on Act 250 to evaluate the strengths and challenges associated with Act 250 regulation and alternative structures for planning, review, and construction. We also ask the Commission on Act 250 to review whether Act 250 permit conditions for forest processing operations negatively impact an operation’s ability to do business in an economically sustainable manner.
An additional provision provides that a forest processing operation requiring an Act 250 permit be reviewed as a minor application if a sawmill produces 3.5 million board feet of lumber or less annually, an operation produces 3,500 cords or less of firewood or cordwood annually, or 10,000 tons or less of wood chips or pellets annually. This is not an Act 250 exemption and a permit is still required. An interested person can request a hearing for a full application review.
One of the sad things for me is the departure of representatives who are retiring. My Vice-Chair, Rep. Dick Lawrence, is leaving this year and after ten years of working with him at my side in House Agriculture and Forestry, I will miss him terribly. Dick is a conservative Republican from Lyndon and while our politics are very different, I would trust him with my life and have said so publicly many times. His honesty and integrity have made it a pleasure to work with him and he will be sorely missed.
Another departure that is causing me sadness is that of Rep. David Deen. While a lot has been written about him in recent weeks, I have to add my two cents. David can be gruff on the outside but I always knew he had a heart of gold. David did not suffer fools gladly. We didn’t always agree on everything but we found a way to work together in a constructive way. As he would say, we knew how to fight. I will miss his excellent leadership of a very important committee and his passion for clean water and the environment. We are all very much better off for his years of service to the State.
And speaking of the environment, one of the improvements that was made in the State House was the acquisition of a water dispensing machine to cut down on the number of plastic bottles used. I’m proud to say that when I last checked we had saved more than 26,000 bottles!
At the time of this writing, it is just after 8 PM on Saturday. It is “hurry up and wait” time. We are all tired but hold out hope that we complete our work tonight. If all goes well I will travel to St. Albans tomorrow morning to pick up a new hive of bees. What better way to spend Mother’s Day!