The water quality bill, H.586, is still very much on our front burner. We are focused mostly on the condition of Lake Champlain and its high levels of phosphorus. One might ask why we at the other end of the state should worry about it, but the answer is simple. If nothing else, Lake Champlain is very important to the economy of Vermont and represents many millions of dollars in recreational revenue. Furthermore, it is one of our greatest natural resources and we should be better stewards of it.

The lake is polluted for a number of reasons including soil erosion and development, but the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee is focused on the agricultural aspects of the degradation. Over the years, we have worked to make sure that large and medium-sized farms, determined by the number of animals, took measures to decrease the amount of nutrient run-off coming from their operations.

It has always been known that small farms would have to come into compliance and that day is now here. However, because of budget constraints, there are not enough people available to do this work at the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM). Should everyone who owns just a few animals be part of this next step? One of the tasks we are having difficulty with is determining the definition of a small farm. The goal is to decide how big a farm should be to merit attention from the AAFM in regards to water quality. We are trying to differentiate between a "homestead," where someone owns a handful of animals versus someone who has a bigger operation. What is the cut-off point?

The concept is that the AAFM will be charged with issuing a permit and visiting small farms to help with water quality/nutrient issues. What we are finding is that a homestead with very few animals could be causing a bigger problem than a small farm that is following the AAFM's Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs).

After taking testimony in committee and at three hearings around the state, it became apparent that many people are not aware of the AAPs. Perhaps the first step is to make a major education/outreach effort regarding the AAPs. To find the AAPs online, Google "VT accepted agricultural practices," scroll to the bottom of the page, and click on the link under "Regulations."

As Town Meeting approaches, there are many questions about school budgets, the statewide property tax rate, and how it is determined. Tax Commissioner, Mary Peterson, in consultation with the Secretary of the Administration, the Department of Education, and the Joint Fiscal Office is required to recommend adjustments to the statewide property tax rates if the balance in the education fund stabilization reserve is greater than 5 percent or less than 3.5 percent.

Several factors are considered, including the statewide grand list (which fell by 0.5 percent), property tax adjustments (income sensitivity adjustments are expected to increase $7.9 million), school spending (which is estimated to rise by 3.8 percent), the equalized pupil count (which is declining by 539 statewide), base education amount per pupil (due to decrease by $42), General Fund transfer (up $6.8 million), the Lottery transfer (up $0.5 million), the Purchase and Use transfer (up $2.1 million), and the dedicated Sales and Use transfer (up $4.2 million).

Weighing all of these factors, the Tax Commissioner, in her letter to the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem, recommended increasing by $.05 both the base homestead property tax rate and the uniform non-homestead property tax rate to $.99 and $1.49, respectively. Also recommended was a decrease from $9151 to $9109 in the amount of base spending (what we used to call the "block grant").

The House General, Housing, and Military Affairs Committee has been working on a bill that would give employees earned sick days. From a public health standpoint, it makes sense to give people time off if they are sick. If someone comes to work sick, they will probably not be particularly productive and will potentially spread their illness to others, who will be equally unproductive. Some might say that they should just take the day off without pay, however, many people live pay check to pay check and can't afford to miss a day of work so they come to their job sick. 

H.522 would mandate that employers with five or more employees allow the accrual of earned sick time. Full or part-time employees would earn one hour of sick time for each 30 hours worked, up to a maximum of 56 hours. They would not be allowed to use this time for vacation unless their employer okays it. Seasonal workers could accrue the paid sick time but not use it until the following season. New employees could also accrue it but not use it during their probationary period.

Most employers (75 percent) in Vermont give either paid sick time or combined time off and would be exempt from the law. The 25 percent that don't offer it employ 60,000 Vermonters. The future of H.522 is unclear at this point.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Committee.