This week in the Legislature was marked by a variety of bills passed, and in Windham a variety of weather conditions, reminding me of the old saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes.” From my vantage point on Old Cheney Road, I watched the first signs of spring on Turkey Mountain turn to not being able to see Turkey Mountain due to heavy snow that blanketed our end of Windham with a foot of the white stuff. Many of our daffodils that typically don’t bloom until the beginning of May were up and the forsythia bushes were looking lovely. Now they are covered, and I wonder if they will recover. We’ll see on Tuesday and Wednesday when the temperature is predicted to be near sixty degrees and their fate is revealed.
What will also be revealed is the trash along our roads and highways. Vermonters are pretty good about not littering and I think with pride of our wonderful Green Up Day tradition when we clean up after ourselves and others. Some of the statistics are impressive. In the past, it has been estimated to be the largest statewide volunteer event with more than 22,000 people taking part. Two hundred thirty-nine communities have participated, cleaning up 13,000 miles of road. These numbers come from my report on Green Up Day in 2018 and may have been affected by the pandemic, but hopefully, folks will be out again this year on May 1st cleaning up their neck of the woods.
Governor Deane Davis formalized the event, and the first official Green Up Day was held on April 18, 1970 when, believe it or not, the interstates were closed for three hours in the morning to allow volunteers to pick up litter. The State now takes responsibility for cleaning up the interstates; everyday Vermonters do the rest. It’s become quite an event with a poster contest for children, which is a brilliant consciousness-raising exercise. Usually, there are green bags available at the Town Clerk’s office or another municipal building. If you’re interested in learning more, please go to the website https://greenupvermont.org or contact your Town Clerk.
All of this is a great segue to one of the bills we worked on this week. Two years after Green Up Day was established, Vermont passed its first bottle bill, perhaps in response to the large number of bottles and cans volunteers were picking up. At the time, the deposit cost five cents per container for soda and beer. The goal was to incentivize Vermonters to return containers, not only to reduce litter, but also to recycle the aluminum and glass the containers were made of. Nearly fifty years later, the deposit amount is the same and a nickel seems to be worth less to people because fewer containers are redeemed. Additionally, markets have changed, bottled water and juice are more popular, and only 46% of beverages sold today are covered by the 1972 bill.
Experience shows us that the second most littered piece of trash that you are likely to find on Green Up Day is a plastic water bottle. Redemption of containers is preferable to simply recycling them because they tend to be cleaner and more likely to actually get made into new containers. This is particularly true of those made of aluminum.
H.175, an act relating to the beverage container redemption system, is meant to update the Bottle Bill and solve some of these problems. It expands the law to cover plastic water bottles; containers for all carbonated and non-carbonated beverages, with the exception of dairy products; as well as wine and hard cider bottles. It’s estimated that an additional 375 million containers will be recycled in Vermont alone, if the bill passes. It may increase redemption center jobs and will generate more money for the Clean Water Fund because that’s where unclaimed deposits go at this time. A poll of Vermonters indicates strong 88% support for the update of the Bottle Bill.
There was a long debate on H.175 on the House Floor that contributed to a twelve-and-a-half-hour Zoom day between committee work and Floor action, but the bill passed second reading on a strong 99-46 vote.
The other bill that contributed to that long day on Zoom was S.53, initially referred to as the menstrual products bill because it removed the sales tax from feminine hygiene products such as pads, tampons, and cups. That aspect of the bill was not what drew fire, rather it was the other provisions that update the sales and income tax systems and bring Vermont in line with other states.
S.53 does several things including the creation of a new definition of “vendor-hosted prewritten computer software” that is accessed remotely through the Internet or a vendor-hosted server or platform. It repeals the exemption from the sales and use tax. This has been called the “Cloud Tax” and if passed, Vermont will join twenty-one other states that already charge sales and use tax on these products. Other provisions include the lowering of the minimum tax rate for small businesses, while companies making more than $300 million in sales receipts will be required to pay a more equitable amount. Mutual Fund managers will have to pay updated fees in order to sell securities in Vermont.
An important aspect of H.53 is that it excludes the first $10,000 of federally taxable retirement pay for those who served in the United States military. It is anticipated that approximately 3,900 Vermonters will be positively affected by this measure. As a result of all of the additional elements in S.53, it was retitled “An act relating to tax changes affecting corporations, menstrual products, military retirement income, prewritten computer software, and investment security company fees”.
On Friday, my Agriculture and Forestry Committee was able to vote out a long-awaited bill, S.102, which is technically called “An act relating to the regulation of agricultural inputs for farming”. We fondly refer to it as the “chickens foraging on compost” bill. It actually has two distinct parts, the first of which addresses the compost issue, the second addresses the regulation of dosage form animal health products, feed supplements, plant biostimulants, soil amendments, and plant amendments.
For several years, there has been an on-going discussion/debate as to whether food residuals are solid waste or food for chickens. Technically, food scraps do not fall under the federal definition of animal feed so the question became, who should regulate those Vermont businesses that were making compost by taking in food residuals and allowing chickens to forage on them? The Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM)? Or the Agency of Natural Resources since they regulate solid waste?
The good news is that an agreement has been reached where the AAFM will regulate certified small farms that make compost, either with chickens or that make compost for primary use on their own farm. The requirements mandate that the farm is subject to the Required Agricultural Practices and that they are importing not more than 2,000 cubic yards of food residuals per year. Henceforth, we will think of food residuals/scraps as agricultural inputs. There are also restrictions about where new such farms can be sited unless a municipality expressly permits them through zoning.
It should be remembered that this is a valuable service to institutions and private individuals, especially since the Universal Recycling Bill prohibited food scraps in our landfills. For instance, the Vermont Compost Company in Montpelier allows for a Saturday drop-off of food scraps as long as their rules are followed.
As mentioned earlier, the second part of the bill authorizes the AAFM to regulate dosage form animal health products and plant biostimulants that are currently not registered by the state. The main reason for taking this step is to assure consumer safety and protection. Because there is a fee associated with registration, S.102 will visit the Ways and Means Committee and be on the Floor in the near future. The fees will be used to fund a new Agricultural Residuals Management Program that will research the levels of Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), heavy metals, and micro-plastics in our farming soils.