It is clear we are coming down the homestretch of the 2017 Legislative Session. The Senate passed their version of the budget and a Committee of Conference has been appointed. Other committees are hustling to wrap things up as the deadline of next Friday or Saturday looms before us. The budget will be the last thing we do and other bills need to be on-board when the train leaves the station or they will have to wait until next year.
Outside the State House, the signs of spring are showing though it seems late this year. The lawn is greened up and people are starting to use it for recreational purposes. That is one of the joys of working at the “People’s House” – people actually get to use it. Frisbee players, young families picnicking, sunbathers, and hacky sack players all use the lawn very freely. This winter someone set up an ice skating rink that was very successful. During the winter on very cold days, I have actually seen children on their way to school come in one side of the State House, walk through the downstairs corridor, and out the other side for a moment’s respite from the cold. We are so fortunate to live in a state that allows for that laid back attitude.
The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee has been working on several bills – one is completed and the others are still in flux. Our Animal Health Bill was finalized when we concurred with the Senate’s proposals of amendment. The bill was requested by the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets and basically updated many of the animal health statutes, some of which hadn’t been reviewed in decades.
The “Chicken Bill”, S.9, which I wrote about last week, came from the Senate; we made a few changes and sent it back. They are now reviewing our changes and may send it back with more changes, yet again. It will help a number of Vermont farmers expand their ability to produce and process poultry without inspection.
H.218 – an act relating to the adequate shelter for dogs and cats, was voted out of Senate Judiciary on Friday. Senators Jeanette White and Dick Sears were extremely helpful in making that happen and we thank them for that. It now goes to the Senate Floor for second and third reading on Monday and Tuesday. Hopefully, it will be smooth sailing for this important bill.
We affectionately refer to H.218 as the “Dog Bill” but it does apply to cats as well. It represents almost three years of hard work and a collaborative effort with three major stakeholders who don’t generally agree on issues. The Humane Society of the United States, the Vermont Veterinarian Medical Association, and the Vermont Traditions Coalition, which includes the Vermont Federation of Dog Clubs worked together to help craft what has become a clear, concise guideline for what constitutes animal abuse.
Last year, what was essentially the same bill ran into a snag due to the shenanigans at the end of the Session. It, along with the Farm to School bill, did not make it through the process, which was regrettable. This year, they are both back and teed up to pass this coming week – keep your fingers crossed that all goes well!
S.33 is the Farm to School bill, which I have written about before as well. This is a fantastic program that has demonstrated great success on many levels. I think we can all agree that we want our children to excel educationally and personally. If our education dollars are going to be spent wisely, we need children who are ready to study. There is a direct link between children who are well-fed with nutritious food and readiness to work as well as good behavior.
S.33 would expand the universal meals program to more schools. Currently, it is a pilot program in five Vermont schools but the hope is that more schools will take advantage of the opportunity with this expansion. To qualify for the federal and state help, a school must have 40% of its students eligible for free and reduced lunch.
The Farm to School Program is beneficial, not only to students, but to the larger community as well. Increased sales of locally-raised/grown products help our economy and our farmers’ bottom line. Additionally, every dollar spent by schools on local products contributes an additional sixty cents to the local economy.
Our Housekeeping Bill, H.495, has been what we affectionately refer to as a Christmas tree because it has been decorated in good shape by the Senate Agriculture Committee. Many of the provisions they have added are things we can support, however, some of them cost money and we can’t pass anything that is going to put a hole in the budget. In other words, the budget that we passed in the House does not include money for these items. An example of this is the elimination of sales tax on logging equipment and parts. We support this because the timber industry is suffering and recent regional developments do not bode well for the future. Forestry is a major portion of our working landscape and we need to be planning ahead. This tax expenditure does not represent a huge amount of money (approximately $114,000) but because it was not accounted for in our version of the budget, we cannot do it.
The same applies to S.34, an act relating to cross-promoting development incentives and State policy goals. S.34 includes the same tax exemption for logging equipment as was included in the Housekeeping Bill, as well as an exemption for air-contaminant fees paid by farmers for anaerobic digesters. These digesters are very costly and are helping with water pollution clean-up so the hope is to give farmers an incentive to make this important investment.
There’s a lot moving and things can seem to drag on; a logjam of legislation forms but then one seemingly small thing can occur (someone gets what they want) and everything lets loose. This is the time of year that can drive some folks to distraction because there is a certain amount of “hurry up and wait”, but I love it because a lot can get done in a short period of time. It’s challenging to keep track of all the balls, not to mention keep them all in the air but that’s what makes it exciting.