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Legislative Update for Week Ending February 19, 2021

 Bills of Interest

S.52 An act relating to increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025. This bill is in the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs. 

S.67 An act relating to repair of agricultural equipment -This bill is the Senate version of the Ag Right to Repair language in H.58. The bill was sent to the Commerce and Economic Development Committee. The Senate Agriculture Committee is asking the bill to be remanded to them. 

S.83 An act relating to the Dairy Stabilization Program – This bill proposes to impose a $0.05 tax on every retail package of dairy products sold by a distributor to a retailer. The bill would also establish the Dairy Industry Stabilization Program to provide financial assistance to dairy farmers in the State. The financial assistance would be provided in the form of a premium over the federal order price that the State shall pay each registered dairy farmer in the State per hundredweight of milk sold in the State. This bill is in the Senate Agriculture Committee. 

H.241 An act relating to establishing an ecosystems services tax – This bill proposes to establish an ecosystems services tax credit for activities on working agricultural land and managed forestlands that sequester carbon or improve water quality. This bill is in the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee. 

H.258 An act relating to increasing the minimum wage to $15 -This bill proposes to increase the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour by 2025. This language is in the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee. 

H.292 An act relating to a regenerative economy – This bill proposes to require the 13 State to develop a plan for a regenerative economy by 2024. This bill proposes to require the State to develop a plan for a regenerative economy by 202 and includes language pertinent to agriculture. It is not yet assigned to a committee.

LT. GOVERNOR MOLLY GRAY MEETS WITH FARM BUREAU 

Vermont Farm Bureau leaders met with Lt. Governor Molly Gray on Tuesday. VTFB President Joe Tisbert led a discussion on our guiding principles, advocacy for all Vermont farmers and legislative priorities. He was joined in the meeting by Executive Director Steve Reviczky, 1st Vice President Mary White and Legislative Director Jackie Folsom. Lt. Governor Gray shared her views on a number of agriculture’s challenges and opportunities and welcomed future meetings with Farm Bureau. She was delighted to speak with Mary about cows (“Jerseys or Holsteins?”) and learn more about Farm Bureau our programs. We were invited to contact her office with any concerns or suggestions and participate in her zoom discussions pertaining to farming and forestry. We are appreciative of Bridget Morris of the Morris Group for setting up the meeting and thank Lt. Governor Gray sharing her time with us.

AG COMMITTEES HEAR FROM FARM TO PLATE 

Last Thursday, members of both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees attended a three-hour presentation from Jake Claro, Farm to Plate Project Manager and others on the 10-year Vermont Agriculture & Food System Strategic Plan. The report and plan lay out a vision, 15 goals, 34 priority strategies and 276 recommendations to advance Vermont agriculture and food systems. The report provides insights through fifty-four product, market and issue briefs that examined bottlenecks, gaps and opportunities specific as well as recommended strategies to advance each. Priorities identified in the report include 1) providing at least $1.5 million in annual funding to the Working Lands Enterprise Fund to accelerate innovation and sustainability in Vermont food system businesses, 2) establishing funding mechanisms to address specific food system investment gaps for women and Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) owned businesses, 3) improve funding opportunities and create equitable access for BIPOC organizations and BIPOC-owned businesses, 4) rebuild Vermont’s restaurant industry to provide local purchasing incentives to support the expansion of farm-to-table relationships, 5) support stabilization and revitalization of the dairy industry (through marketing programs focused on quality, expanding opportunities to differentiate the milk supply through production of higher attribute milk and increased capital investment for dairy processing, storage and co-packing of value added products) 6) increase availability of local meat and improve capacity of slaughter and processing facilities; and twenty-eight other identified wide-ranging priorities. To view the full plan and priorities, please visit www.vtfarmtoplate.com/plan.

MORE ON BEAR DAMAGE AND CROPS 

Counsel Kelly McGill’s research discovered that Fish & Wildlife has rulemaking authority to decide the value of the damage and this can be appealed to court. Currently, rules state that damage must be reported within 72 hours of same, which may not be easily discoverable as bears generally prefer the interior of corn fields. Ms. McGill noted that when a proper claim is filed with F&W, a voucher is sent to the State Treasurer’s office and payment is made at that time. It is unclear whether the funds come out of the F&W budget or from the General Fund.The Treasurer’s office will be asked to clarify the source of funds used for this purpose as the Committee continues consideration of the issue.

HOUSE AG WORKS ON BUDGET REQUESTS 

Committee members worked through the budget proposed by VAAFM and further requests from VAAFM and the VT Sustainable Jobs Fund on behalf of WLEB and VHCB. There is a request for an additional one-time funding of $3 million for Working Lands and a request to support the Governor’s proposal of $20 million in funding for VHCB. In addition, there is a request for an increase in one-time funding of $20 million for VHCB to be used primarily for affordable housing initiatives of which up to $5 million may be used for conservation projects and Farm and Forest Viability Program activities that support the rural economy.VTFB has been working with the Farm Labor Housing Coalition and has asked Chair Partridge to include language that part of the affordable housing funds be directed towards grants and/or loans for farmers to update/upgrade employee housing, especially since COVID-19 restrictions require additional space for physical separation. So far, there has been no traction on this request. We also asked to change the may to shall with regard to the $5 million proposed for conservation and viability programs.

H.89 AGRITOURISM LIMITED LIABILITY BILL 

Adam Necrason from the Trial Lawyers Association attended a House Agriculture and noted that the language in H.89 was very balanced and his organization had no objections to the bill. He said it provided clarity and reassurance for farm owners engaged in agritourism.Mr. Necrason had already spoken to Rep. Grad, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, in support of H.89 and Chair Partridge noted the bill would probably not need to stop in that committee for review.One amendment to remove the word “agricultural fairs” from the bill was passed and the bill was voted out of committee on an 8-0 vote. Members will try and get it on the notice calendar and ready for second reading by Friday. 

H.88 AND THE TAX DEPARTMENT 

Jill Remick from Property Valuation and Review testified on H.88, which would require filing certifications for agricultural land enrolled in current use every three years instead of annually. She testified this was too long and would not solve the problem of landowners neglecting to file. Out of 8,000 certifications mailed out, only about 100 are consistently not returned and the department does make several attempts to notify those individuals. She also noted that there is a current use online portal available to landowners.Final discussion of this bill removed Section 2 which requested a study and report of an online portal and also removed the language referencing the 3-year filing. The following language remained: “The Commissioner may waive the eligibility requirement under the subsection provided the Commissioner obtains through other means satisfactory information that the enrolled agricultural land continues or enrolled agricultural buildings continue to meet the requirements for enrollment.” Ms. Remick testified this would give them some flexibility to review late certifications by other means (maps, GIS photos, etc.) and not have to simply remove land from the program. There seemed to be agreement within the committee members to this arrangement and the bill will be drafted reflecting the new language.Ms. Remick also commented on the testimony two weeks ago, that a farmer was fined by the Tax Department for allowing their animals to pasture in woodlands. She stated she had no knowledge of this incident and would inquire with the department. She noted that FP&R does not encourage or allow pasturing animals in woodlands and if farmers continue this practice their woodlands should be enrolled as agricultural land and not as forest land.  

H.218 RAW MILK CHANGES 

Rep. Surprenant, the bill’s lead sponsor, discussed her proposal stating it provides accessibility for raw milk to other consumers, supports “food equity” and encourages more farmers to register as Tier 2 producers. There were some questions about chain of custody and how to ensure raw milk stays cold during transport and why the location of the CSA or farmstand had to be within 30 miles of the producing farm. The explanation was that this was suggested by Rural VT to coincide with the previous definition of what “local” meant (that definition was changed last year). It was noted that there is currently no definition for either CSA or farmstand in statute. The Committee’s counsel opined on the matter of Act 250 permits in the event that the sale of raw milk of others tips the scale on a CSA or farmstand in terms of selling less than 50% of product principally produced on the farm. No testimony has been taken on this bill. If you are interested in testifying, please let us know by calling Jackie at 802-426-3579 or emailing her at crkdbrks@aol.com.

APPOINTMENTS – DAIRY TASK FORCE AND CLIMATE COUNCIL SUBCOMMITTEES 

Senators Starr and Brock were appointed by the Committee on Committees to be the Senate representatives on the Dairy Task Force. No other appointments have been made public to date. The Agriculture Subcommittee for the Climate Council, chaired by Abbie Corse, was meeting on Wednesday to vet the nominations for seats on the group. No appointments have been announced as yet. There were over two hundred nominations for the four different subcommittees. 

VAAFM PRESENTSAG INNOVATION BOARD PROPOSAL 

Kanika Ghandi and Cary Giguere from VAAFM were before the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee to discuss the Agency’s proposal to change the current Vermont Pesticide Council into a board more aligned with their current focus. The Council is now comprised of representatives from many governmental agencies as well as one from UVM and one person from the general public. Originally established under Governor Kunin, this Council was to develop a more comprehensive view of pesticide use across state government and determine what was best for the environment. In 1999, the Legislature asked that this group change focus and begin to benchmark pesticide use in Vermont and to weigh in on policy. The VAAFM proposal envisions the new Board being more policy oriented, viewing pesticide use holistically. The make-up of the new board would be the Secretary of VAAFM, an organic farmer, a member of the UVM Center for Sustainability, the Director of Water Quality, the Commissioner of the Health Department, the Secretary of ANR, a soil biologist, a dairy farmer, a fruit and vegetable farmer, a grass based non-dairy farmer, a member of the general public, a member of a land conservation group and a member of an environmental advocacy group.There is still no language drafted for this proposal and the House Ag Committee was reluctant to discuss this further without something specific to view. VAAFM indicated they were working on a draft and would try to have it ready for next week’s agenda. 

FOR YOUR INFORMATION 

“Crossover” this year is supposedly March 12 for non-money bills and March 19 for money bills. In plain language, this means for all bills to pass this year they must be voted out of all relevant committees and on the floor by March 12, other than the budget, the Education Fund bill, the capital bill and the transportation bill. The last four noted require money and are given more time for vetting in their respective committees. Keep in mind, bills do not “die” if they are not voted on in 2021. Because this is the first year of the biennium, any language that does not get out of committee before adjournment in May will still be in play come January.

ORLEANS COUNTY FARM BUREAU ZOOM MEETING ON MARCH 1st Scott Birch, President of Orleans County Farm Bureau, invites members and legislators from Orleans County to meet via zoom on March 1 from noon until 1:30 pm. This virtual gathering is in place of the County Farm Bureau’s annual legislative pancake breakfast. Sadly, the breakfast cannot be held this year due to COVID-19.  Orleans County members should look Zoom invitation sent by email. If you are interested in participating in the virtual gathering and need the Zoom invitation, please email Peggy at the Vermont Farm Bureau office (peggyvtfb@gmavt.net) or call her at 802-434-5646.

From your Advocacy Team -Bridget, Gerry, Joe, Michael, and Jackie    

Vermont Farm Bureau continues to update our Covid-19 Resource page. Take a look. Share.https://www.vtfb.org/covid-19.php

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