In the House Agriculture Committee, we are continuing to work on H.496, an act relating to preserving Vermont’s working landscape. We have heard testimony from dozens of people, all of whom have offered positive feedback regarding our work.
The process has been painstaking and I thought it might be interesting to share a bit of the experience. Some say that making legislation is a lot like making sausage, the end result is generally good, but it’s best not to watch the process. I would say the process can be messy and tedious but it is important that everyone’s views and questions be listened to and considered because if we are hearing concerns in committee, we will definitely hear them when we get to the Floor of the House. It’s best to be prepared.
All of our House Agriculture Committee members are smart and thoughtful and we come at the bill with different approaches. In our committee we have Democrats, Republicans, and an Independent and the thing I am most proud of is that we work as a team, honoring all contributions, even if we disagree. At the beginning of the biennium, I asked that committee members leave politics at the door and that is what we have done. In almost all cases, we come to a consensus.
When we started work on H.496, it took a while to get our feet under us. The bill was 51 pages long and had been drafted with elements that we have since agreed to eliminate. To be fair, the draftsperson had taken the recommendations of the Vermont Working Landscape Council and Partnership and turned them into statutory language, which is not the easiest thing to do. As we tried to absorb it all, it became clear that it would be necessary for us to take the bill apart and put it back together again to reflect what we think is valuable, reasonable, and possible.
Another catch is that the governor did not include money in his budget proposal for the Working Lands Enterprise Bill, so we are looking for ways to fund it. As a result, we potentially need to take a tiered approach so that, depending on how much money we are able to free up, we can fund parts, or all, of the bill.
We are now at a point in the process where we have deconstructed the bill, as it was written, and are reconstructing it with the elements that we believe will achieve the goals we want. If you go to the legislative website, www.leg.state.vt.us, and find H.496, you will see the original draft.
We have eliminated several sections including the working lands designation piece and with it the capital gains and estate tax incentives. It seemed like too much additional bureaucracy with too little incentive to include it. Creation or reconstitution of the Central Planning Office also seemed like more bureaucracy so we eliminated that as well. By the time the bill is completed, other sections may be significantly changed or gone, and there will definitely be a section that includes our goals.
One of our goals was to not create additional boards, so we used the structure of the Agriculture Innovations Center (created to accept USDA grants – earmarks procured by Sen. Patrick Leahy), which is winding down in the next few months, to become the Working Lands Enterprise Board (WLEB). The WLEB will administer the Working Lands Enterprise Fund (WLEF), if we can find the money, that will continue the good work started by the Farm to Plate Initiative (F2P), passed in 2009.
One exciting aspect of the bill is that we are elevating forestry and forest products to the same level of importance as agriculture. So much of our forest-based natural resource is heading north to Canada where it is processed at a lower cost. This is primarily due to the fact that power and health care are cheaper. As a result, we lose out on the jobs that the industry could provide. If we can find ways to use more Vermont wood for Vermont-made products, more money will be kept in the state.
Though the legislative process is sometimes slow and tedious, it is gratifying to think that what we do may have a positive effect on the economy of the state. One of the goals of F2P was to create 1,500 jobs over the course of ten years. In two years, 497 jobs have been created. 33% of the goal has been achieved in 20% of the time! We must continue the momentum that F2P started – the Working Lands Enterprise Bill does that. It encourages and leverages investments that will create a brighter future for Vermont.