3.22.2019 – Pollinator Protection, Housekeeping, Timber Harvesting Equipment, and the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative

With the policy crossover deadline behind us, we spent the week shepherding the bills that needed to visit money committees through the process.

Our Pollinator Protection Bill, H.205, increased the fee on pesticide product registration by $25 so it needed to go to the Ways and Means Committee. When companies register their products for sale in Vermont, they pay a fee that helps defray the cost of inspections and enforcement. The additional $25 will be placed in the Pesticide Monitoring Revolving Fund with the goal of paying for two people to perform the inspection, enforcement, and education functions we have required in the bill. Because of the fee, House Ways and Means took a look at the bill and approved the increase, making some technical changes that specified where the additional $25 would be placed.

The creation of the two jobs necessitated a trip to the Appropriations Committee, but because we had a source of revenue to cover the cost, it moved through quickly. The Pollinator Protection Bill will be up for action on the Floor next Tuesday and Wednesday. We are hopeful that it will pass, especially given that the original bill had 65 co-sponsors and strong support from many stakeholders.

Our Housekeeping Bill, which typically includes mostly technical corrections, also includes three soil health and water quality improvement provisions that I wrote about last week – the Environmental Stewardship Program, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, and the Ecosystems Services Incentive Program. While no additional money was necessary to fund them, because they potentially use capital funds, the Institutions and Corrections Committee asked to take a look at the bill. The committee wanted to be sure that the language is clear and that there is strong assurance that the money will be spent on projects that qualify. The Housekeeping Bill passed on Friday and is off to the Senate.

In 2017, in order to give the logging industry a well-needed shot in the arm, we eliminated the Vermont Sales Tax on timber harvesting equipment and repair parts. We heard that all of the states around us exempted such equipment from sales tax and that loggers were going to other states to buy what they needed. As a result, our local dealerships were suffering and since we had fought (and still do) a similar battle for the agricultural sector, we felt it made sense to do the same for our forestry sector.

Last year, we discovered that some of the equipment is actually subject to the Purchase and Use Tax and we needed to work on it again. Depending on the equipment, it is subject to either Sales Tax or Purchase and Use Tax, so to be absolutely clear, we added the Purchase and Use Tax exemption. This year, we found that the Tax Department was still charging Sales Tax on timber harvesting equipment accessories so H.82 was drafted, we worked on it, and Rep. Tom Bock of Chester reported it on the Floor on Friday. It will be read a third time on Tuesday and, hopefully, that will complete our work on the subject.

Recently, we received the 2018 Impact Report for the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative (WLEI). The WLEI is one of those things in which I take great pride regarding my work in the Legislature. I can still remember chairing the committee of conference for the House side in 2012 and the drama of finally shaking hands with Senator Vince Illuzzi at 11:55 pm when the Speaker had given us until midnight to come to an agreement.

The WLEI has had a tremendous impact on economic development and job creation in Vermont’s agricultural and forestry sectors. To quote from the Impact Report, the WLEI and governing board (WLEB) were created “to stimulate economic development in the agricultural and forestry sectors by systematically advancing entrepreneurship, business development, and job creation”. What we found was that Vermont has a lot of hard-working entrepreneurs with great ideas who might not have the knowledge necessary to create a business plan or access capital to grow their businesses. The WLEI helps “by providing technical and financial assistance to help businesses innovate and grow”.

The WLEB assesses focus areas and funding categories on a yearly basis “to ensure adequate attention toward the priority issues and needs of the agricultural and forestry industries. Part of the strategic plan for this year was the creation of Industry Impact grants for projects ranging from $50,000 – $150,000. These projects must impact the supply chain for low-grade wood or dairy, two industries determined by the WLEB in need of larger investments.” One of the larger grants made this year is to a consortium of several dairies that want to process their milk into cheddar cheese.

In 2012, if my memory serves me well, we were able to invest just under $1.5 million in the WLEI. Since 2012, that yearly amount has decreased due to budget constraints but what we have been able to do with the money is impressive. Over $5.3 million in Working Lands funds has been distributed and 184 agricultural and forestry projects have been funded. That $5.3 million has leveraged over $10 million in matching funds and all fourteen counties have benefitted from these investments. Working Lands grantees have employed 866 people and created 501 new full-time jobs. They have generated $31 million in additional sales for the Vermont economy. To learn more about the WLEI, who has gotten grants, and some of the success stories, check out https://workinglands.vermont.gov/history-initiative/success-stories.

It is clear that the investments made in the WLEI is money well-spent. The other big plus is that the WLEI has always been evaluated and assessed by Results-Based Accountability (RBA), which asks “how much are we doing, how well are we doing it, and how many people are better off?” It makes commonsense to ask these questions and the WLEI ranks high when we do.

Every year, House Agriculture and Forestry is asked by the Appropriations Committee for our recommendations regarding where to spend extra one-time money, should it be available. Every year, we put Working Lands at the top of the list because it has been so successful. Also, on our list this year were the Farm to School, 2+2, Agricultural Fairs Stipend, and Vermont Outdoor Recreation Programs.

Several years ago, we decided that one-time money could not be used for on-going expenses. Working Lands is a perfect place to invest one-time funding because the WLEB can adjust the grant-making amount on a yearly basis. The governor’s FY 2020 budget recommended level-funding the WLEI at $549,000, even though last year the Legislature brought that funding up to approximately $750,000. During the week, we learned that House Appropriations has put an additional $1.5 million into WLEI, which would amount to an all-time high and we are extremely grateful. It is not a done deal and there is a lot more of the process ahead, but we are holding out hope that that amount will end up in the final agreement.