3.23.2012 – Big Bills Move, Working Lands Enterprise Initiative Funding, and GE Food Labeling

This week, we spent many long hours on the Floor of the House. This was due to the fact that several huge bills were debated, including the Budget, or “Big Bill”; the Transportation, or “T-Bill”; a renewable energy bill; and the second of two Fee Bills (Fee 2). Additionally, there was a host of other legislation that hit the Floor as a result of the crossover deadline.

The fees for the Department of Environmental Conservation were the focus of Fee 2. The Transportation Bill makes increased investments in our roads and bridges, to a great extent due to Tropical Storm Irene. The Renewable Energy Bill (H.468) continues the work Vermont has done to increase our energy independence and reduce greenhouse gases.

The House Appropriations Committee has once again done a miraculous job of meeting the needs of Vermonters while passing a thoughtful, balanced budget. The State of Vermont has suffered unprecedented disasters this year. We all remember Irene, which hit us at the end of August, but the spring flooding affected many areas of the state dramatically.

While we did not have the same level of budget gap to close for FY2013 as in 2012 ($175 million), we still needed to find $61 million. This was done without increasing broad-based taxes and we more fully met the needs of some of Vermont’s most vulnerable citizens including the elderly, those with mental health challenges, and our children. The amazing thing is that our budget increases only 6%, half of which is due to Irene and the spring floods.

If there are any surpluses going forward, 50% of it will be dedicated to the General Fund transfer to the Education Fund, which will reduce property taxes; 25% will be put in a true rainy day fund; and the remaining 25% will be held to offset federal cuts. There is also a reserve fund of $16 million.

Other good news is that the Appropriations Committee set aside $2.1 million to fund the Working Lands Enterprise Bill. While it is not a “done” deal, it is an encouraging indication that this bill, on which the House Agriculture Committee worked so hard, will advance to the next step. If it makes it through the entire process and is signed by Governor Shumlin, it will continue the important investment in our agricultural sector started by the Farm to Plate Initiative in 2009, which has been so successful. The Working Lands Enterprise Bill will continue the momentum of the local foods movement and have a positive impact on economic development and job creation in Vermont. Another very positive element of the bill is the inclusion of the forest products sector in an attempt to improve the economics of that industry.

In the House Agriculture Committee, we continued to take testimony on H.722, the genetically engineered (GE) food labeling bill. H.722 really focuses on the misbranding of food. Our committee decided to continue working on the bill because most members feel that it is a consumer’s right to know what is in their food.

What we have heard repeatedly from witnesses representing the Biotechnology Industry Organization and Grocery Manufacturer’s Association that there is no difference between food that is produced with GE ingredients and food that is produced conventionally. The representative for the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association also testified that the FDA does extensive testing on GE products, which was directly contradicted by Dr. Michael Hansen, the Senior Staff Scientist for Consumer Reports, who reported that the FDA does no testing but accepts the word of the biotech companies and makes no comment on it.

Part of the problem is that because the biotech companies tightly control their products and access to them, very few independent studies have been done to verify the claim that there is no difference between GE and conventional products. Those that have been done sometimes indicate otherwise, such as the ones done on the recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) growth hormone. It is easier to trust scientific results from an unbiased source that has nothing to gain from the sale of these products.

We will be taking testimony next week from our Legislative Council. We would also like to hear from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to discover directly whether or not they do independent testing on GE products and if they require safety assessments as they do on other products.

What is clear is that 40+ other countries require the labeling of GE food and that there are 21 other states where similar legislation has been proposed. There is currently a petition on the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) website for Vermonters who might want to express their opinion on this issue. To sign on go to – www.vpirg.org – click on “Take Action” and scroll down.