It’s hard to believe that Town Meeting Week is right around the corner! As a result, the reality of “crossover” is looming on everyone’s horizon, which creates a certain sense of urgency in our various committees.
This year, crossover will be the Friday of the week after Town Meeting week or March 17th. Crossover is the day by which all policy bills must be out of their committees of jurisdiction and on to the Floor or off to a “money” committee (Appropriations and/or Ways and Means). Bills then have another week to get out of the money committees. If bills don’t make the crossover deadline, they go over to the Senate and get placed in the Senate Rules Committee. A crossover exemption can be requested but there are no guarantees that a bill will be released. This is why policy committees are tying up loose ends and getting their bills out.
The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee is working on several bills including what we call a “housekeeping” bill and an animal health bill both of which we will vote out soon. In between work on those, we continue to hear from organizations that contribute to Vermont’s vibrant agricultural economy. This week we heard about the Vermont Fresh Network (www.VermontFresh.net) from its Executive Director, Meghan Sheradin.
The mission of the Network is to “advance relationships among farmers, chefs, and consumers to grow markets for Vermont grown food.” It is a membership organization that now has 173 chef/restaurant, food coop, hospital, and institutional members and 128 farmer, food producer, distributor, and agricultural coop members for a total of 301 members. They started 20 years ago with 32 members so their growth and success is impressive. Vermont Fresh Network chefs purchased $45 million of Vermont products last year and farmers and food producers sold almost $117 million of product!
One of the requirements for a member business to display the Vermont Fresh Farm to Table logo is that they have to partner with at least four farms with at least 15% of the products they use coming from those local producers. The business also needs to be community-minded and give back in some way like sponsoring fundraisers for local worthy causes.
Associated with this effort is the DigInVT (www.diginvt.com) initiative, which offers a website to attract the yearly four million visitors to Vermont and make it easier for them to get deeper into the local food system. After the VT Seal of Quality was discontinued there was a need to develop an inexpensive marketing tool for travelers. A strategic process occurred, which included the maple, brewers’, tree fruit growers’, cheese, farmers, and farmers’ markets associations, along with the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Through use of their networking and co-listing abilities, a website was created to offer itinerary-building information for tourists seeking farm to table experiences listing food events, restaurants, sugar houses, butcher shops, etc.
The cost to run the DigInVT website is relatively low but there is a desire to update it and make it interactive so a Working Lands Enterprise Initiative grant has been applied for.
Also visiting our committee this week were the folks from the Vermont Agricultural Fairs, Field Days, and Festivals. It is truly inspiring that the people who organize and run these events every year are virtually all volunteers.
The State of Vermont offers two types of support to the fairs, field days, and festivals. The first is a stipend to be used at their discretion but a typical use is for start-up costs such as tickets, premiums, and award ribbons. These are relatively small amounts but help get the events going. The second source of money is for capital grants that are used for projects that are expected to have at least a 20-year lifespan. Examples of these projects include additional bathrooms, grandstand improvements, sewer work, track improvements, and new barns.
It is always a delight to meet with these dedicated volunteers who are so proud of their fairs. They should be proud – they promote agricultural literacy and education and are an economic engine for the State. More than 370,000 people attended fairs and field days last year; 26% were from out-of-state. Almost 7,000 children and teens attended, an increase of 900, which is a truly positive trend.
The fairs and field days have an important impact on the Vermont economy and coffers bringing millions of dollars in commercial food sales (meals tax revenue), payroll and wages (income tax), and midway income (various taxes) to the State. The investment we make in stipends and grants are well worth it.
The one down-side for the fairs is that weather can play a big role in their success. If we could figure that out we’d be in good shape!
The Appropriations Committee has had quite a task on its hands because the budget that was proposed by Governor Scott does not balance. In Vermont, we always pass a balanced budget despite the fact that we are not constitutionally required to do so.
Governor Scott played a bit of a shell game by shifting costs to the Education Fund without covering the cost. He did shift $86 million from the General Fund but the total cost of his programmatic shift amounted to $136 million. He relied on level-funded school budgets in order to cover most of the difference. That was not a reasonable request since most school boards had finalized their budgets and costs that increased their budgets were, in many cases, unavoidable due to, for example, contractual obligations. Also, there was little appetite on the parts of school boards to go back to the drawing board and start over because they had worked so hard in the first place.
For those of us who are acutely aware of the property tax issue, there is deep concern about shifting any costs to the Education Fund, in part, because it drives property taxes up and because, in the past, the General Fund transfer to the Education Fund has been shortchanged, which has the same effect.
The job now is for the House Appropriations Committee to construct a responsible, balanced budget that we can send to the Senate that does not rely on unrealistic assumptions and break contractual agreements.