Carolyn Partridge: Session begins with focus on woodlands, wetlands, special education

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The 2020 Legislative Session began on Tuesday, Jan. 7 at 10 a.m. It is the second year of the biennium, which means that everything introduced last year is still in play. Things got off to a quick start and we basically picked up where we left off in May.

Last year, we asked for several summer studies and I'm excited to hear about the results. The Forest Carbon Sequestration Working Group was tasked with researching the enrollment of Vermont state forestland in the California Carbon Market.

This could potentially bring revenue to the state for the carbon sequestration services inherently provided by our woodlands.

In testimony we took last year, it was apparent that it is not a simple process to enroll but was perhaps doable.

It requires an inventory of the timber on the land to determine how much carbon can be sequestered. That inventory then needs to be verified by a third party. We will be taking testimony on their work and I will be very interested to see what additional information the working group has discovered.

We also asked for a Soil Conservation Practice and Payment for Ecosystem Services Working Group to study and recommend financial incentives designed to encourage farmers in Vermont to implement agricultural practices that exceed the mandates of the Required Agricultural Practices (RAP) to improve soil health, enhance crop resilience, increase carbon storage and stormwater storage capacity, and reduce agricultural runoff to Vermont waters. I look forward to hearing about the results of their work.

Both working groups focused on the ability of our agricultural and forestry sectors to help mitigate the effects of climate change through carbon sequestration. The additional, very positive aspect of implementing soil health/conservation practices is that it contributes to water quality improvements, which is especially important to the Lake Champlain watershed.

On Dec. 20, 2019, I traveled to Hudson, N.Y. to attend a planning meeting sponsored by the Council of State Governments Eastern Regional Conference. The subject was the formation of a Working Group to discuss an Agriculture and Forestry Sequestration Initiative in the Northeast.

The thought is that this Initiative might be modeled on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which has been very successful. Legislators from Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, and New York were there for several excellent presentations and discussions about the various possibilities. It was determined that we would continue this conversation and for the first time in a while I felt hopeful about stemming the tide of climate change.

I was one of the members of the Wetlands Study Group that met six times during the fall. Three of our meetings were in Montpelier and the others were in Bradford, St. Albans, and Bridport.

It is always good to get out and meet Vermonters with boots on the ground. Ultimately, we recommended "that no legislative action be taken at this time to amend the wetlands statutes. Instead, the Study Committee recommends that State agency efforts described below be allowed to proceed in an effort to bring clarity, consensus, and cooperation to the regulation of wetlands in the State." For the full text of our letter, please go to the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee legislative webpage for Jan. 8, 2020 and click on the letter titled "Legislative Study Committee on Wetlands Letter to Legislature."

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We are all concerned about the situation with the Brattleboro Retreat. It's importance to the Windham County region and the entire state, can't be overstated. The Retreat employs 700 people and provides mental health services for Vermonters from all areas of the state. During his State of the State address on Thursday, Gov. Scott said the Retreat was "too critical to let fail." How this is ultimately resolved remains to be seen but the entire Windham County delegation is working hard for the Retreat and the Vermonters it serves.

During the State of the State address, the governor did talk about affordability again. Something that is making life difficult to afford in the town of Windham is the cost associated with pre-K special education.

I think we all agree that all children deserve the best opportunity for education possible. Early intervention is an important and potentially cost-saving aspect of providing that best education.

Two years ago, the Windham School Board approved, and the townspeople ratified, a sound, no-frills budget.

During that year, we became responsible for pre-K special ed costs that equaled more than ten percent of our budget, which put us in a deficit situation — not something we like. However, special ed is supported by the state to the tune of 56 percent so we thought we would see some compensation the following year.

As we looked into the situation, we discovered that pre-K special ed is not supported at the same level as kindergarten to 12th grade.

In fact, it is supported at 15.5 percent and the local community is responsible for the rest. This, of course, pushed us way above the penalty threshold and taxes skyrocketed. Further research revealed that in one year the Windham Central Supervisory Union (WCSU) has had $400,000 in pre-K special ed costs and was supported with $62,000 from the state.

Had these costs been for K-12, the support would have equaled $224,000 and the taxes in Windham and all affected WCSU towns would have been much lower.

From a policy standpoint, this makes no sense. If we are going to provide early intervention and give our children the best start possible, we should be supporting these costs, at minimum, at the same rate we do for K-12. Anything short of that is irresponsible. I, and others, have sponsored a bill that would provide the same level of support for pre-K special ed as we do for K-12 special ed costs.

As we have been dealing with this special ed funding inequity, a weighting study was released that finds that children in less densely populated (rural) areas have probably been shortchanged by the current education funding formula. This was what the Small Schools Grant was created to compensate for 20-plus years ago — something that we have been fighting to keep in recent years with the advent of Act 46. Hopefully, work will be done this year to ameliorate this unfair situation.

State Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham-3, welcomes emails at cpartridge@leg.state.vt.us. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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