Legislators seem to have settled in well to their committees this second week of the session. Bills are beginning to be sponsored and the work of the committees has begun.
The first major piece of legislation the General Assembly will tackle is the Budget Adjustment (BA) Bill. Every year, the Legislature takes a look at the various areas of government to determine if they are on track for spending. In some cases, they have spent less or are right on target, and in others, they are over-budget. This can be for a variety of reasons depending on the agency or department. The Appropriations Committee reviews these cases, with the help of the standing committees of jurisdiction, and adjustments are made.
This year, we are a little ahead of schedule with the budget adjustment process, despite the fact that the Legislature started relatively late on Jan. 9. We owe this is, in part, to the dedicated members of the Appropriations Committee who came in the week before the Session started to hear testimony and get the ball rolling.
Some of the areas that need additional resources include Judiciary, the State Police, the Department of Children and Families, Mental Health, Natural Resources, Commerce, and the Pay Act.
In our bailiwick, more money is needed by the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) for mosquito control. This is a good example of the value of the budget adjustment process. As many of you will recall, this summer two Vermonters died from Eastern Equine Encephalitis, as known as EEE, which is transmitted by mosquitoes. The AAFM had to deal with this issue as a matter of health and safety and spent money that was not in their budget in order to respond to the problem. If the BA bill is enacted with the requested money included, the AAFM will be made whole and will also be prepared for this coming summer. The Agency will need to purchase the necessary larvacide and have personnel available to monitor the situation. The Agriculture Committee quickly reviewed and gave our stamp of approval to the request.
The interesting news about Budget Adjustment is that there are a couple of sources of money to help pay for the budget pressures. Both are health care-related, somewhat surprising, and definitely encouraging. Medicaid costs are down by nearly $12.9 million due to lower utilization and cost per case. Also, we are experiencing a state employee health rate holiday, due also to lower utilization, so the state's share - $5.8 million - of the self-insurance payment was saved. These encouraging trends may be the result of our health care policies that focus on preventive medicine and health care "homes" for all Vermonters.
It is customary at the beginning of the biennium to have testimony in committee that provides orientation, especially for new members. This week, we were given a briefing by the Secretary of AAFM, Chuck Ross, regarding some of the activities of the agency.
We were excited to hear about the progress made on the Working Lands Enterprise Act that we passed last year, which included not only agriculture, but forest products as well. As you may remember, we were able to obtain an appropriation of $1.175 million that was to be used in several different ways. These included small grants to "leverage private capital, jump-start new businesses, help beginning farmers access land, and support diversification projects that add value to farm and forest commodities." Technical assistance, business planning, financial packaging, and other wraparound services for entrepreneurs who are ready to take the next step in growing their already existing businesses is another area. The last is in, for example, infrastructure investments for processing, distribution, and value-added manufacturing. Some of the money is to be used for the personnel to administer the grants and the wraparound services.
In all, there is $986,500 to be dispersed to the three "buckets," which will be the task of the volunteer Working Lands Enterprise Board. We were told by Secretary Ross that the requests for the money are at $9.2 million - more than 10 times what is available! This is a clear indication of the great potential and opportunity for economic development we have in the agriculture and forest products sectors in Vermont.
We are very grateful to Sec. Ross, Deputy Secretaries Jolinda LaClair and Diane Bothfeld, and the entire staff at the AAFM for their hard work this summer and fall getting this off the ground. We also appreciate the collaboration of and with Commissioner Mike Snyder of Forests, Parks, and Recreation and Sec. Lawrence Miller of the Agency of Commerce and Economic Development. We especially thank Governor Peter Shumlin for his support of this initiative that builds on Vermont's strengths. It is a wonderful example of agencies working together to make Vermont a great place to do business.
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee.