This week, we were not able to adjourn the 2017 Legislative Session. The logjam of the teachers’ health care issue has not cleared and the week was characterized by the “hurry up and wait” syndrome.
Members of the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee were pleased that work on two of our pieces of legislation, S.34, an act relating to cross-promoting development incentives and State policy goals, and H.495, an act relating to miscellaneous agriculture subjects, were finalized. Both contained the provision to exempt logging equipment and repair parts from the sales tax. I am sometimes asked why the same provision is included in different bills. The answer is that if something is important to us, we include it in multiple places to help guarantee passage – sort of a “belt and suspenders” approach.
Last week, I wrote about the plight of the forest products industry and what it means to our working landscape. The sales tax exemption is a small, if not symbolic, gesture of our concern for the industry and what it is facing. I was contacted and asked if the exemption will include items such as chain saws, which many people use. The answer is no. The exemption will include skidders with grapple and cable; feller bunchers; cut-to-length processors; forwarders; delimbers; loader slashers; log loaders; whole-tree chippers; stationary screening systems; and firewood processors, elevators, and screens. Repair parts for this equipment will also be exempt, which is extremely important given that most loggers have not been able to afford new equipment and have been doing their best to repair what they have.
H.495, which is our “housekeeping” bill for the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM), gained a lot of attention this week. Originally, it went over to the Senate with several fairly mundane provisions to improve efficiency and update practices at the AAFM. It came back from the Senate with a number of other provisions that had some folks very concerned.
One of the non-controversial elements clarifies law regarding dyed diesel fuel. Current law includes that diesel fuel, when it is being used in forestry equipment that is moving forward, be untaxed. When the equipment is stationary, it should be taxed. This is a ridicules requirement, which is impossible to administer or enforce. The Vermont Fuel Dealers testified to us that they have not been charging the tax and have a letter from the Tax Department indicating that the law is unclear and that they will not be found in violation. We appreciate the Tax Department working with us to clarify the law and eliminating the confusing language. Because most fuel dealers were not charging the tax, it does not have an impact on the revenues of the State.
The Senate included language that clarified that sheep’s milk could be sold as raw milk along with cow, goat, and water buffalo, something we were unaware of as having not been included. They also codified that land in the Current Use Program that is taken out of production due to water quality issues, such as riparian buffers, will still be included in the program. Additionally, there was language regarding the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative to clarify priorities for grant-making. This was included to correct a change put into the budget at the last minute a year or two ago with no testimony or scrutiny that caused concern for the Working Lands Enterprise Board.
The provisions that caused the concern had to do with subsurface tile drainage. Tile drains have been installed for decades to eliminate wetness from fields. For those unfamiliar with tile drains, they look like pipes with holes in them. Water enters through the holes and is transported through the pipe to an exit point.
The concern on the part of environmentalists is that these tile drains can be a point source for pollution. During the Session, our committee heard reports on tile drainage from the University of Vermont and the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, New York. Both indicated to us that the jury is still out on the effects of tile drains on nutrient pollution. More scientific study needs to be done before a conclusion can be reached.
When H.495 went to the Senate Finance Committee for review, policy language was added that would have required the AAFM to establish a program to map the location of subsurface tile drainage and issue a report that lists the specific response or enforcement actions taken by the Agency of Natural Resources or AAFM to address the effects of subsurface tile drainage on the waters of the State.
These requirements, especially the mapping, were impossible to fulfill. Right now, the AAFM has its hands full with the requirements of Act 64 and they were denied two positions in the FY2018 budget that would have helped with that work. No funding or positions were included with this request for mapping so we struck the tile drainage section in its entirety and included language that asks the AAFM to come back with recommendations for whether and how to collect information on subsurface tile drains, including how the Agency of Agriculture would use that information.
Included in the “dust up” was language about the confidentiality of nutrient management plans (NMP) and their data. NMPs contain very detailed information about a farm’s infrastructure including the crops grown, the number and types of animals, export and import materials, land base data, and how these items are managed in a system that protects water quality. These details are very specific to an individual farm business and, if widely available, could impact competitiveness of farms for rented land and possible substrates for on-farm methane digesters. The information included in the NMPs could be likened to any corporation’s business plan. Imagine asking other businesses in the State of Vermont to make public their business plans and how that would be received.
NMPs are paid for by farmers out of their own pockets or with money from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), not with State money. The information contained in the NMP is considered confidential by the NRCS but, currently, becomes subject to the Public Records Act when it is submitted to the AAFM. The hope is to gain the trust of farmers so that they will work cooperatively with the AAFM on water quality issues. The lack of confidentiality does cause some farmers concern so, like the tile drainage mapping piece, the report from the AAFM will include a recommendation on whether NMPs should be exempt from public inspection and copying under the Public Records Act.
Hopefully, next week we will be able to adjourn – lambing has started for us and the sheep need to be sheared!