4.3.2015 – Water Quality, Education, and the Capital Bill

This was a week of long hours on the Floor of the House. We worked on several major bills including H.35, an act relating to improving the quality of State waters; H.361, an act relating to making amendments to education funding, spending, and governance; and H.492, an act relating to capital construction and State bonding. Otherwise known as the Capital Bill, it determines the investments we make in “bricks and mortar” projects.

H.35, the Water Quality bill, was a great accomplishment and a long time coming. Rep. David Deen or Westminster, our Connecticut River Steward has worked on this issue for years and it is very gratifying to see it come to fruition. Several Committees worked on the bill including Fish Wildlife, and Water Resources; Agriculture and Forest Products; Judiciary; Government Operations; Ways and Means; and Appropriations. Needless to say, it had a careful vetting and the finished product is extremely important.

The agriculture portion of the bill advances ideas that have been in the wings for several years. A number of years ago, Large Farm Operations (LFO) and Medium Farm Operations (MFO) were required to be permitted. As part of the permitting process, an inspection was done to determine if farms were in compliance with the Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAP). The AAPs are rules promulgated by the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) that lay out best practices to reduce nutrient runoff to the waters of the State.

H.35 requires that the AAPs be revised by July 1, 2016. Starting one year later, owners or operators of small farms will be asked by the AAFM to certify that they are in compliance with the AAPs. We are asking Small Farm Operations (SFO) to assume the same responsibilities as LFOs and MFOs when it comes to nutrient runoff. It is important to note that there is plenty of time for SFOs to prepare themselves. The AAFM will have its hands full doing outreach and education so they will work with partners such as the large farming associations (NOFA-VT, Rural Vermont, and Farm Bureau) to get the word out.

H.35 still has to be reviewed by the Senate. Hopefully, they will take up the bill and pass it, given the Environmental Protection Agency’s interest in an approved Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan for Lake Champlain. A TMDL is a roadmap for cleaning up the lake and H.35 would be an essential part of it.

Funding for the seven positions that will be required by the AAFM to inspect and certify the thousands of small farms in the State will be raised through yearly fees on LFOs, MFOs, SFOs, and several other agriculture-related sources. This was more favorable to farmers than the fertilizer tax that was proposed by the Administration.

H.361 is a bill that attempts to start a conversation about how we can improve educational opportunities for Vermont students and reduce costs. We are fortunate that Reps. Ann Manwaring of Wilmington and Emily Long of Newfane serve on the Education Committee and that Rep. Laura Sibilia of Dover has also been monitoring the committee’s work, especially regarding small schools.

One thing I have learned through this process is that not all supervisory unions are as functional and cost effective as the Windham Central Supervisory Union (WCSU). There are supervisory unions in the State where every school hires all of its own teachers, rather than sharing them amongst schools as we do at the WCSU. Another is that there are high schools in the state that have fewer than 100 students, which may not allow them to get all of the opportunities they need to go on to college or other higher learning. There are also places in the state where, within a three-mile radius, there are three elementary schools with seriously declining populations.

One of the great challenges for many of us, especially those who serve on school boards, was to stop thinking of our particular schools and realize that there are situations in the State that can be improved. The fear is that we will paint with too broad a brush and apply a one-size-fits-all solution to all schools regardless of the quality of education offered and the results we get.

There are elements of the bill that a number of us have issues with including spending caps, though there are safeguards for special education costs and unusual costs such as the need for a new heating plant or roof. The bill will be reviewed by the Senate and there are those of us who hope that changes will be made.

The Capital Bill makes investments in “bricks and mortar” projects that will last a minimum of 20 years. These projects include State buildings such as courthouses, correctional facilities, and government buildings. Also included are “Building Communities” Grants such as Historic Preservation, Recreational Facilities, Cultural Facilities, and Historic Barns and Agricultural Grants.

A notable policy change in the Capital Bill is the implementation of prevailing wages. This provision requires payment of wages for construction workers, on all State construction projects that are authorized or funded by a Capital Bill, at the prevailing wage level as determined by the federal Davis-Bacon Act. The benefits are that it would level the playing field for all businesses bidding on these jobs and would put more money in Vermonters’ pockets. The possible downside is that because more would be paid out in wages, there would be less money available for the actual bricks and mortar.