I want to start with a correction to a link that was included in last week’s piece on the broadband conference I attended. One of the resources for funding is the USDA Rural Utilities Service’s pilot program, ReConnect. The correct link for that program is http://www.usda/gov/reconnect. My thanks to a sharp-eyed acquaintance in Montpelier for reading my column and spotting that.
It has been a busy week at the State House as we glimpse the end of the 2019 Session. Some things, we already acknowledge, will have to wait until next year but for others we are making good progress and I’ll feature a potpourri of bills that are moving.
This week, we passed S.58, the Hemp Bill, which further brings us into compliance with the 2018 federal Farm Bill. The bill adds processing to the list of things that can be done and establishes a new fee schedule that will go into effect in 2020. For the 2019 growing year, the license to grow and/or process hemp will cost just $25. Next year will be another story with a sharp increase for some activities. There will remain a $25 license that allows people to grow and process small amounts of hemp for personal use.
Given the potential for income and the amount of work involved for the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM), the increased fees are justified. At a hearing early in the Session with several hemp growers/producers, it was clear that these increased fees were supported and, in some cases, strongly encouraged.
Most information filed with the AAFM is considered a matter of public record and subject to public records requests. Our bill provides that the name and general location of people growing hemp will be available but the location of the parcels, including coordinates, maps, and other identifiers where hemp is grown will be confidential and not disclosed. We want to thank Rep. John Gannon of Wilmington for his assistance in getting that provision quickly approved by the House Government Operations Committee. It is unfortunate to have to report that the reason for this need for confidentiality is due to thefts of hemp plants last growing season.
One bill that was the cause for lengthy debate on the Floor of the House was S.113, an act relating to the prohibition of plastic carryout bags, expanded polystyrene, and single-use plastic straws. The title is fairly self-explanatory but there are some exceptions and fine points that kept the conversation going for a while. Nothing will go into effect until July 1, 2020, but at that time single-use plastic carryout bags, plastic straws, and plastic stirrers will no longer be allowed. In the case of plastic straws there will be exceptions for hospitals, nursing homes, residential care homes, assisted-living residence homes for the terminally ill, and therapeutic communities. Bags to be used for prescription medications or loose produce or other products to be taken to the cash register are exempt.
Also, on the list of products to be banned are those made of expanded polystyrene. They include food containers, plates, hot and cold beverage cups, trays and egg cartons. Anything coming from out-of-state or used to package raw, uncooked, or butchered meat, fish, poultry, or seafood will be exempt.
We are aware that this is going to take some getting used to but many of us are already using reusable bags and some towns have already put into place a ban. Paper bags may continue to be provided by stores, which may charge for them. If they do charge, it should be no less than ten cents per bag.
House Agriculture and Forestry (HAFC) has two bills that are in play, H.525, an act relating to miscellaneous subjects, and S.160, an act relating to agricultural development. The Senate is working on H.525 and last I knew it was in Senate Appropriations, usually the last stop before going to the Floor. We passed S.160 out of our committee and it is now in Ways and Means for review. It will also have to go up to Appropriations.
H.525, which we refer to as a “Housekeeping Bill” turned out to be a bit more than that, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Added to the language is a slight loosening of the laws concerning raw milk. It would reduce the size of the sign and change the language slightly. It would also allow farmers to sell their raw milk at farmers’ markets without a pre-sale agreement with their customers. It should be noted that some of these provisions were included in the original bill as a line of defense for farmers if there was a problem with their product and someone became ill as a result. Another raw milk-related change has to do with products that are made from raw milk that are intended for animals. There is a desire to not have confusion so the animal product needs to be “decharacterized” by altering its color or, in some other way, changing it so no one will mistake what they are buying.
Another added provision asks the Secretary of AAFM to convene a seed review committee to review the seed traits of a new genetically engineered seed proposed for sale, distribution, or use in the State. While the language is not specific, there is concern regarding a new dicamba-resistant genetically-engineered corn seed. In other parts of the country, there have been several incidents, not necessarily with corn, where dicamba has been applied to a crop and due to weather conditions, a situation has been created that causes the herbicide to volatilize and drift to other fields where crops, not dicamba resistant, have been weakened or killed. Dicamba products have been developed in part because weeds have become resistant to glyphosate. There is a new dicamba-resistant corn seed that the AAFM would like to be able to review before it becomes available in the State. Disastrous consequences could result to fruit orchards, vineyards, and sugarbushes if a volatilization event occurred here in Vermont.
S.160 is, perhaps, our version of a Christmas tree this year. It has accumulated a number of provisions not originally included, but like H.525, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It should be noted that though it is formally referred to as an act relating to agricultural development, there are several provisions that pertain to forestry. Included is financial assistance for logger safety and master logger certification. We know that Workers’ Compensation Insurance rates are very high for loggers and the goal is to try to bring them down by providing training to make the occupation safer. This is also the bill where we create the Vermont Forest Carbon Sequestration Working Group regarding carbon markets and how Vermont might benefit by having our State forest land a part of a project that sells credits into a carbon market. This is a very exciting possibility and we look forward to seeing the results of the study.
One note of positive news is that we concurred with the Senate proposal of amendment to the Pollinator Protection Bill (H.205) so it is on its way to the governor’s desk for his signature.