As I write this article, I am looking out my Montpelier "home away from home" window. Despite the late spring, the grass has greened up, the daffodils are blooming, and a light rain is falling. After a couple of late nights at the State House, we are poised for the last day of the 2014 Legislative Session.
The Committees of Conference for the Budget and Tax Bills have agreed and signed off and any other legislation that is going to make it through the process this year has been wrapped up or it will die.
This has been the "hurry up and wait" time of year when we work on the Floor of the House for a while and then take breaks while the Senate sends us legislation, and vice versa. During the breaks, we spend time cleaning out our desks and file drawers because we need to completely vacate the State House. If we are fortunate enough to be re-elected on November 4th, we will be able to "re-inhabit" our committee rooms and Floor desks.
One very positive step in terms of paper has been the use of IPads. This has also contributed to the public's ability to follow our work via the legislative web page -- www.leg.state.vt.us. If you click on the "Standing Committee Pages" link, you can look at all of the bills we worked on with the associated drafts and witness testimony. Not every committee does this but the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee does, and it has changed our work lives for the better.
My committee has, once again, worked as a team and accomplished good work. We are delighted that the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative made it through the entire process with the full amount of $1.5 million, as proposed in Governor Shumlin's base budget. This is such an important opportunity for job creation and economic growth, we are glad to see it increase. Requests last year for the money were over $12 million, twelve times what we had to spend!. We were also able to assure that the Farm to Plate Initiative has almost its full amount.
Together, these two programs have leveraged state dollars with other funds to make our investment in the working landscape and local foods movement truly significant. We have far surpassed our estimate of job creation -- 2,200 jobs in four years rather than the projected 1,500 jobs in 10 years.
This week, the governor signed the bill that will require the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering on July 1, 2016. The bill passed with strong multi-partisan support, 114-30. The bill signing was held on the front steps of State House -- what I referred to in my remarks as the "front porch of the People's House." It was well-attended with the Ben and Jerry's scoop truck giving away ice cream, High Mowing Organic Seeds giving away packets of seed, and a festive, celebratory atmosphere.
What I like most about the passage of this bill is that it represents the hard work of many people over a long period of time. While I was congratulated for being the Chair of the Committee that worked on the bill for two years - 2012 and 2013 - I felt it was most important to thank all of the Vermonters who had worked so hard to bring this to fruition. My final remarks were, "You have all been with us on this journey and you have proven that your votes count, your voices can make a difference, and together, we govern." This was never truer.
In these last days of the Session, we have passed an Economic Development Bill that focuses on workforce development, access to capital, and telecommunications.
We also passed a minimum wage bill on a strong 132-3 vote that increases wages in increments over the next four years. We recognize that half of the people earning these wages are women supporting their families by earning half of the family income, and working full-time hours no matter how many jobs they hold. As their earning power increases, we expect to see more money spent in our communities and less dependence on state and federal programs that cost taxpayers money.
At the time of this writing, the Education Governance Bill seems to be on life support.
Once again, we have produced a balanced budget in which we have done our best to meet the needs of our most vulnerable Vermonters while recognizing the realities of our taxpayers' pocketbooks. Many of us are tired -- the last week or so of the Session can require long hours at the State House -- but I leave with a satisfied feeling that we have done our best for all Vermonters.
I look forward to returning home to shear sheep and goats, prepare the fiber for processing, get the garden in, and get ready for haying. My life is a perfect balance of cerebral work at the State House and physical work at home and I thank the voters of the Windham-3 district who allow me to serve them in Montpelier -- it is a true honor.
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Committee.