Notes from Montpelier: Revenue shortfall will require tough decisions
It's hard to believe that Town Meeting is here. I look forward to visiting with folks at all of the Town Meetings in my district. Rep. Matt Trieber and I will attend the Rockingham Town Meeting on Monday evening at the Bellows Falls Opera House. Tuesday will see us starting in Brookline at 10 a.m. and then Athens, Grafton, and Windham. We then go to Bellows Falls where we visit with voters at the polls. That evening, we will be holding an information meeting on the FY2016 budget at the Bellows Falls Library from 6-7 p.m. All are encouraged to attend.
The 2016 budget weighs heavy on many of the legislators' minds. In order to meet a $23-29 million reduction target range, we are looking at some drastic cuts that will have a significant impact on many Vermonters. There is a list of what we are calling the "big uglies" – proposals that are causing many of us great concern. The list includes the elimination of funding for the Vermont Council on the Humanities, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Vermont Arts Council, Vermont Public Television, the Vermont Women's Commission, and the Vermont Historical Society. Also included are cuts to Human Services, general government, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and what is left of the $500,000 for the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative. Other proposals are the closure of the Vermont Veterans' Home and the Windsor Prison.
For those of us on the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee (HAFPC), the total elimination of the money to the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative is particularly painful. We have witnessed the amazing results of the grants and technical support offered by the program. The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund has been tracking food system investment results since the Farm to Plate Initiative was created by the Vermont Legislature in 2009. Here are some remarkable statistics from www.vsjf.org:
– 4,189 new jobs (7.2 percent increase) were created in the food system from 2009 to 2013.
– For every one food system job created there are 1.28 additional jobs created in Vermont.
– From 2007 to 2012 food system economic output expanded 24 percent, from $6.9 billion to $8.6 billion.
– 665 new farms and food businesses (5.9 percent increase) were launched in the food system from 2009 to 2013.
We have great momentum going; other states are in awe of what we have done with the local foods movement, we are exporting cheese to France! It would be tragic to lose that momentum when there is so much more to gain. One proposal is a ½ to 1 percent increase in the Rooms Tax. One half percent would fully fund the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative with a little left over. One percent would fund Working Lands, the agricultural portion of the water quality bill, as well as other agricultural efforts that we hold near and dear such as the Agricultural Fairs and Farm to School, which have been either eliminated or reduced significantly.
What is the nexus of an increase in the Rooms Tax to agriculture and water quality? Tourists come to the state for the beauty of our pastoral lands – to hunt, fish, sightsee, recreate, etc. What keeps our pastoral lands pastoral? The farmers, foresters, loggers, and landowners who work their land and keep it undeveloped. We could call this an Agricultural or Rural Heritage Tax.
It would be paid by folks who are coming to our state from elsewhere. They would be helping to make an investment in the continued beauty of the place they love to visit. It is also highly doubtful that vacationers would make a judgment about where they choose to go based on the Rooms Tax.
The good news is that the HAFPC voted out the agricultural sections of H.35, the Water Quality bill. Accepted Agricultural Practices will be revised and eventually small farms will be required to be certified. The certification process will include the need for a Nutrient Management Plan and an assessment of how well a farmer is following the AAPs. The intent of is to help farmers improve, if necessary, in order to reduce nutrient runoff into our waterways. While it does give the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets additional enforcement power, the hope it that they will not have to use it. The goal is to clean up the waterways of our state – H.35 is another step in that continuing effort.
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