Update from Montpelier Grand Isle/Chittenden State Representatives
By MICHAEL MORGAN
email@example.com or 802-881-7835
February 27 - March 3
This last week leading up to the Town Meeting Day break was a whirlwind.
Last Saturday we did a Legislative Update at the Snow Farm Winery in South Hero. It was well attended, and a lot of good dialogue took place.
On Monday, Feb. 27, the Governor’s administration hosted a town meeting style event at the North Hero Community Hall to work with the towns in our district to access programs that still have American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money available to them. It, too was well attended and I think many walked away with good information on how to proceed in accessing these monies.
After the meeting, I joined Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts and Deputy Secretary of the Administration Doug Farnham at Happy Bird Poultry Farm in Isle La Motte for a visit. Co-owner, Ember Boyle gave us a nice walk through of their facilities and showed us where past agricultural grants had served their business well. This is important to the Boyle family and especially so to the area as we desperately need places to access, good local food products that are raised and processed right here!
I next joined Assistant State Librarian Tom McMurdo at the Alburgh library. We were greeted by librarian Gina Lewis and several of the library trustees. Mr. McMurdo briefed them on other potential state assistance for enhancing their facility. The libraries are a critical asset in all of our rural communities as they provide internet, educational materials and social meeting spaces among other numerous upsides to their existence.
In the House Government Operations and Military Affairs (GOMA) we continued to take a great amount of testimony on several topics. We took more testimony on the Cannabis Control Board regarding a re-write of legislation regarding regulation of cannabis in the state (it falls under H.270). Our legislative counsel gave us an annual update of technical corrections for the current legislative session that will be wrapped into a committee bill.
Late in the week we took more testimony on a trio of alcohol related bills (since liquor and lottery now fall under our jurisdiction) and on Friday we took testimony from the Vermont Emergency Management folks on a committee bill that addresses Regional Emergency Management Committees. Last, in the testimony world we spoke once more with Sheriff Mark Anderson, the Windham County Sheriff and State Sheriff’s Association President. He did a walk-through of another committee bill that relates to the Vermont Criminal Justice Council and recommendations for improvement in policing/law enforcement training.
Crossover dates for this half of the biennium are as follows: standard bills – March 17th and money related bills – March 24th. What crossover means is that each body (House and Senate) have until these dates to vote on and move over bills to the other side for consideration or they must wait until the following year. There are a few exceptions to this, especially in GOMA – for instance Town Charter changes are not subject to these dates. The reason that the Legislature validates and approves town charters is because Vermont is a Dillons Rule state which means that our towns are granted legal authority by the Legislature.
With crossover looming, this past week saw a flurry of bills go through the House. And here is a sampling: H.41 – Referral of domestic and sexual assault violence cases to Community Justice Centers; H.305 – Professions and Occupations regulated by the Office of Primary Responsibility (OPR); H.67 – Household products containing hazardous substances; H.148 – raising the age of eligibility to marry; H.227 – The Vermont Uniform Power of Attorney Act; H.94 – Removing the Reach Up rateable reduction; H.217 – Miscellaneous Worker’s Compensation amendments. There were more and with crossover looming I anticipate the week that we are back in session for there to be a great number of bills hitting the House floor.
Senate bill S.5 (titled the Affordable Heat Act) passed the Vermont Senate on a vote of 19-10 on Thursday. It will now come to the House for a look and any changes. To date, I have had dozens and dozens of emails, text messages and phone calls asking for me to vote NO on this regressive form of legislation on Vermonters. I told folks at last Saturday’s update at Snow Farm that I do not support this legislation. The Governor does not either. Stay tuned and keep sending me your thoughts on this bill.
February 13 - 17
This past week was a relatively quiet week on the House floor. Now, committees are deeply entrenched in taking testimony and massaging bills sent to them as the committee of jurisdiction. To this Legislator, this is not a bad thing, as I’m forever the optimist that we are doing thoughtful, non-knee-jerk work on behalf of Vermonters.
On Tuesday, I kicked off the week with a briefing to the National Guard and Veterans Affairs Caucus (of which I’m a member). As a Guard retiree I was able to educate and pass on the inner workings of the Vermont National Guard, having served in the organization as a senior leader.
My committee, Government Operations and Military Affairs (GOMA) took a great deal of testimony on our Sports Betting bill. We finished it today and passed it out of committee. It has several more stops in the House before it goes to the floor for a vote of the whole body. It will have to be viewed by Ways and Means and Appropriations for sure and possibly a couple of other committees. We also passed out a committee bill, 23-0908, An Act relating to Professions and Occupations regulated by the Office of Primary Responsibility. It is a bill dealing with oversight of professional, licensed occupations in the state.
This week, three bills that I either sponsored or co-sponsored were introduced in the House: a) H.225 – An act relating to exempting all military retirement and military survivor benefit income; b) H.263 – An act relating to emergency medical services and c) H.284 – An act relating to regulating drones above privately owned real property. One that was introduced last week that I am sure will interest several readers is: H.158 An act relating to authorizing dredging for navigation of public waters. It is a bill that would set up a working group to study the dredging of Lake Champlain between Mallet’s Bay and the Inland Sea. This is something that has been talked about by many over the years. Additionally, I have signed on as a co-sponsor to the Rural Caucus Omnibus bill – this bill encompasses the top ten concepts adopted by the 33-member Rural Caucus.
During a special House session on Thursday morning, we elected 3 individuals to the University of Vermont Board of Trustees as well as re-electing Janet Miller as our Sergeant of Arms for another 2 years. On Thursday, after session, I participated as a member of the Sportsmen’s Caucus. This was very well attended by 35+ Legislators. Our primary speaker was Commissioner of Fish and Wildlife Chris Herrick. He spoke to us on several topics that are of immense importance to his department and our district. He also talked about bills that are being worked in committees that affect him and his staff and ultimately our sportsmen.
Last, please join Senators Brock, Norris and Mazza (the three of them are tentative pending firming of their schedules) and Rep Leavitt and me for a Legislative update/roundtable at Snow Farm Vineyard, Saturday, February 25th from 9:30-11:00.
February 6 - 10
This week was heavy with testimony in our Government Operations and Military Affairs (GOMA) Committee. We delved more into online sports betting. Legislative counsel presented the latest iteration of the bill. We also spoke with an agency that specializes in geo-fencing. Geo-fencing is a set of “permissions” for location based participation in sports betting. It basically only allows folks to bet online when in the physical confines of a specific entity (in our case, being present in Vermont). Data shows that there were 139,000 attempts from the confines of Vermont, since the start of the current National Football League season, to gain access to other states online sports books. These were attributed to 16,800 people making these attempts. Proponents feel this is a reason for starting a program here as we have folks willing to participate. In turn revenue is generated for the state. Another pro, according to the briefer, is that thousands of folks attempt access via illegal, offshore sports book accounts – so, we are losing revenue and folks are gaming with no protections in place. As a committee we do not have a full recommendation on this topic, yet.
Testimony on another GOMA Committee Bill delved into licensure of various entities/persons that the state oversees. Current statute regulates fifty-one professions with a total of 85,000 licenses activated. This updates the original bill. Some drivers for licensure are federal statute, consumer demands and market place conditions. A major topic within this arena was compacts. Compacts are agreements by two or more entities such as drivers licenses – a license issued in Vermont is honored throughout the United States. Compacts that are on Vermont’s horizon are for nurses, doctors, and physical therapists. If a person is licensed in one state with a compact and loses their license, they lose their license in all states that have compacts with that state. Compacts have commissions which make their rule sets. We took testimony on three proposed bills involving compacts: H.62 Interstate Counseling Compact – this would allow mental health counselors to do tele-health across state lines. It is close to being online. H.77 Physical Therapy License Compact. H.86 Speech and Audiology compact would also allow for tele-health. For instance, in our district a patient talking with a specialist in Plattsburgh. The Secretary of State’s Office (the office of primary responsibility for these actions) is fully supportive of these to ease barriers to health care in these arenas. I see positive impacts for all of these if stood up.
New testimony was taken from the Agency of Digital Services (ADS) – this was an agency created via Executive Order by Governor Scott during his first term in office. He saw that there were many redundant services provided in each state agency that made sense to consolidate under one entity. This was done to save duplication of effort and ultimately, money. The ADS Secretary Shawn Nailor with his Chief Financial Officer, Kate Slocum, discussed with us the economies of scale that were realized by bringing a majority of the state information technology (IT) systems under their purview. Josiah Racine, the Director of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for ADS also discussed his program that he runs for the state. AI is the development of computer systems that are able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence. One that most of us know is Siri on our phones: Siri recognizes your voice and performs the function from your audible command.
Three Bills passed on the House Floor this week. H.46, Dissolution of Colchester Fire District #3 – this bill addressed a legacy concept that is no longer suitable in the town’s current construct of fire protection and water services. Fire services have been assumed by the town’s fire department and water services have moved over to Champlain Water District (CWD). H.89, Civil and Criminal Procedures Concerning Legally Protected Health Care Activity – this addresses protections for health care professionals and those supporting them. It prohibits litigation being levied upon them in performance of certain medical care procedures that are legal in Vermont. The last bill we moved over to the Senate was H.161, Issuance of Burning Permits – this adds a provision to existing law giving authority to the Commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation to direct town fire wardens to halt burn permits for specified periods of time. I voted in favor of all three bills.
We have reached the 1/3 mark of the session. We bid adieu to our first set of Paige’s in the State House. New Paige’s show up next week. Bills should start popping up on the House floor with greater frequency from here forward.
January 30 - February 3, 2023
This past week was very busy!
On Tuesday, I took part in Governor Scott’s press conference introducing the PACT (Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins) Act. This is a federal program that gives all veterans, that deployed in certain regions of the world, the ability to sign up on a registry that shows service with a connection to hazards such as burn pits, agent orange, etc. Use this link to learn more: https://veteran.mobilehealth.va.gov/AHBurnPitRegistry/#page/home
That same afternoon, I was honored to attend the swearing-in (for another 4-year term) of Grand Isle State’s Attorney, Doug Disabito. It was conducted by Governor Scott in his ceremonial office.
State Treasurer, Mike Pieciak released February 1st as National Unclaimed Property Day.
Vermont has 119 million dollars in unclaimed property (forgotten bank accounts, safe deposit boxes, and more). In 2022, Vermonters filed 15,000 claims that yielded 5.3 million dollars in payouts. To see if you are owed anything go to: firstname.lastname@example.org
In my committee, Government Operations and Military Affairs we took testimony on various bills in our jurisdiction. We took testimony on online sports betting – the pros and cons with stakeholders on both sides of it – those that conduct that type of business venture and gambling addiction entities. We also had testimony on the Sheriff’s Departments in Vermont and the roles they play in our communities. Bad press in a couple of departments has brought unfortunate attention to their ranks. My comments to committee and testifiers were simple: our Sheriff’s play an integral role in our communities with a multitude of invaluable services. I went on to say, “don’t let a couple of bad actors taint their image.” The Sheriff’s duties include courthouse security, prisoner transfer, highway security, and fulfilling the policing role in many of our towns that do not have a police department. Our communities are safer because of their valuable presence.
On Thursday I met with the Vermont Alzheimer’s Association Policy Director and her staff/volunteers. One volunteer was a constituent from Alburgh, Jane Dwinell. Her husband suffered from Alzheimer’s til his death, and they collaborated on a book titled: Alzheimer’s Canyon. I intend to purchase the book and read it. It addresses the horrible disease that took my grandfather’s life and currently inflicts one of my other family members. I thank them for their work.
Two bills passed in the House this week. First, H.45, Abusive litigation filed against survivors of domestic abuse, stalking or sexual assault. In essence it protects victims of stalking or abuse from having abusive litigation levied against them. This was a very good bill with bi-partisan support and I wholeheartedly supported it.
The only other bill passed was H.145, the annual Budget Adjustment Act (BAA) for the Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 budget. The Appropriations Committee recommended everything the Governor asked for in the adjustment but went even further with 91 million of additional monies that were not asked for.
His requests covered essential services and especially was thoughtful when it came to our most vulnerable populations. However, as a body there were fundamental disagreements on getting the adjustment accomplished without “mortgaging” a portion of the next fiscal year budget to get there. For that reason, I could not support this level of fiscal irresponsibility.
January 17-20, 2023
This was the third week of legislative session. Bills are being introduced at a brisk pace. As of today, 86 bills have been introduced on the House Floor. 3 bills passed on the House floor this week. H.1, an act relating to legislative oversight for case management for individuals with developmental disabilities. H.28, an act relating to diversion and expungement for juveniles, and H.42, an act relating to temporary alternative procedures for annual municipal meetings and electronic meetings of public bodies (our committee bill that was introduced and I discussed last week). A review of what happens next with bills that we pass is as follows: Their next stop after we pass them is with the Senate. If it passes the Senate it is then sent to the Governor for consideration. The Governor can do one of three things: sign the bill into law, veto the bill or not sign it and let it go into law without his support.
Each week I’d like to expand on one of the aforementioned bills that passed. H.28 is a really good bill that had unanimous support. It allows a young person to have their record expunged if they meet the following criteria:
Again, I am a member of the Government Operations and Military Affairs Committee (GOMA). In committee this week we took a great amount of testimony on many subjects that fall within our jurisdiction. One interesting piece of testimony was from the Department of Liquor and Lottery, an area new to our committee. They briefed the workings of their department and how they manage liquor and lottery for the state. It is very closely regulated. We also took testimony from the Cannabis Control Board, the Agency of Digital Services (also new to us), the Department of Public Safety and Vermont Judiciary. We also had several of the 86 introduced bills referred to our committee for consideration. Some of the bill sponsors came to committee and spoke to their individual bills.
I spoke last week about my membership in the National Guard and Veterans Affairs Caucus. I am also a member of the Rural Caucus. Rural Vermont is a hot topic in the legislature this year. Much attention was given to rural capacity and how we can put human capital to work to ensure our communities remaining federal relief funds (from various COVID stimulus packages) are expended in a timely manner before the rapidly approaching deadline of Dec 2026. The work of many folks on the Rural Caucus has yielded a rural administrative capacity bill that should be introduced next week, as well as a comprehensive rural omnibus (many things rolled into one bill) package dealing with many issues unique to rural life that are in the works. Through collaborative, tri-partisan efforts, these bills and others like them seek to highlight the plight of many rural towns with respect to overwhelming public safety, infrastructure, and housing needs. All of the bills being introduced need to go through the committee process but many legislators seem on board at this point.
Lastly, on Friday afternoon we heard the Governor’s Budget Address for the year. His proposal is a record 8.4 Billion dollar budget with a strong amount of federal (COVID related relief) dollars attached to it. He warned that this is the year to use the remaining pieces of this money in “investments” rather than just “spending” it. I could not agree more. Future budgets should look different in my humble opinion. Some major points of investment that he spoke to were: infrastructure buildout (roads, bridges, water, sewer etc.), monies toward climate – specifically with a lot of weatherization, regulatory reform, investment in our youth, monies for our invaluable state college system, focus on training of folks in the trades (have you tried hiring someone to do anything in that arena lately?) and finally he asked that this year we look to fully eliminate tax on military pensions. If you’d like to see Governor Scott’s full address, you can find it on You Tube – it is about 50 minutes long.
January 10-13, 2023
This was our first full week of legislative session.
Bills are being introduced at a brisk pace. All committees are starting to get into the meat of their work. As I mentioned last week, I am assigned to the Government Operations and Military Affairs Committee (GOMA).
For those that want to know about various bills and where they stand; that process is in its infancy stages and we are merely introducing bills.
However, in one instance, my committee had the first actionable bill in House Bill 42. H.42 is an “Act relating to temporary alternative procedures for annual municipal meetings and electronic meetings of public bodies.” This bill seeks to continue pandemic provisions for our municipal bodies to have the ability to meet remotely if they choose. The reason for the bill is that current law only allows for these provisions through January 15, 2023. Town Clerks, for the most part, want this capability for their communities. It gives them options for the public having access to the meetings for a whole plethora of reasons – the Clerks and various town boards found this to be a very useful tool during the pandemic. If passed, which I fully expect it to do so, it would extend these provisions through July 1, 2024. So, in essence, it would cover the next two town meeting cycles.
The bill is currently sitting in the Ways and Means committee and I am confident that it will be “fast tracked” for passage in the next week.
In GOMA we already have several additional bills that have been introduced and are sitting on our “wall.” That means it is a bill that has potential to be taken up by the committee and testimony is solicited to look at the pros and cons of the bill. The committee then uses testimony and committee dialogue towards a bill’s passage (or not). There are a whole host of reasons that bills may or may not leave the “wall” for committee consideration. Other bills sitting on our wall awaiting action are: Modification of the reapportionment process (H.20); Establishment of credit for temporary state employment (H.52); and amending the definition of cider vs. hard cider (H.7) – liquor and lottery also fall under GOMA’s jurisdiction. There are more but these are just a few examples. Of course, all the other committees have their own bills for consideration.
This past week, we also had our first National Guard Caucus meeting of the session, I am a member of this caucus. We had our first briefing from the Selective Service, VT Director. We learned, that sadly, VT has one of the poorest levels of participation in this mandatory requirement for 18–26-year-olds. What folks may not realize is that lack of participation, in addition to being a violation of federal law, can deny these folks access to state and federal jobs. We also were introduced to the newly formed, national level program in the Guard for the Integrative Primary Prevention Program (IPPP). Each state is allocated a funded program in this arena with several full-time employees to administer the elements of it. The program will focus on prevention of sexual assault, harassment, substance abuse and suicide prevention. We also received a brief on the newly created Provost Marshall position. Last, the Adjutant General spoke to us on the initiative of the VT Guard making a concerted effort to reach out to New American populations. The Guard, much like the civilian work-force is hurting for manpower and these lawful, permanent residents are great candidates to help fill the ranks of the VT Army and Air National Guard.
January 4-6, 2023
Whirlwind first week of the Legislative session!
The House and Senate were sworn in on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Governor Phil Scott was sworn in with several other state elected officials. Gov. Scott then gave his address to the House and Senate. He implored us to use one time federal assistance wisely and to make sure we helped Vermonters in need due to inflation and record fuel/heating prices. He is deeply concerned we don’t tax Vermonters further and worsen their economic postures. The Governor further recommended we look how to bridge the gap between our cities and our rural communities. I am 100 percent with him on these priorities.
I was fortunate to be assigned to the Government Operations and Military Affairs Committee. This is a great assignment for me to be able to utilize my extensive Select Board service on the Government Operations side of things and my 38 years of military experience for the Military Affairs piece of our committee.
Today, I wrapped up the week with about 25 of my House colleagues with a couple of briefings at my alma mater, the Vermont Air National Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing. We did a base tour and ate lunch with some of our awesome Airmen.
The real meat of our work will begin next week and as we get moving forward I will have much more to report.
By JOSIE LEAVITT
February 27 - March 3
This week was very busy in Montpelier. Many bills were presented and discussed at length on the floor. It was a first-hand view of democracy in action.
Bills come to the House after committees vote to move them forward. Then each bill is read once on the House floor. If the bill needs to go to another committee, for money appropriations or for tax purposes, that committee then votes the bill out and the bill gets read a second time.
It is during this second reading where anyone can make an amendment to change the bill. This happened this week with H. 429, a miscellaneous elections bill. A lot of people didn’t like this bill for a variety of reasons. Among those reasons were increasing the dollar amount that can be donated to a political party from $10,000 to $100,000 for state-wide or federal candidates, and eliminating the ability of candidates to run as what’s known as fusion candidates—Dem/Prog or Prog/Dem. I was not a fan of the huge jump in the donation amount and limiting the fusion candidates. I was not alone.
At the second reading of this bill many changes were suggested. Each potential change was brought to the House floor and discussed and then voted on. What impressed me was every voice was heard and every opinion mattered. We voted on amendments, either passing them or not (meaning the bill didn’t change). We did this for the second reading and then again when the bill was ready for its third reading. This process can literally take hours. While at times it might feel tedious, this process is a hallmark of our democratic process as it allows all parties to air their concerns and ideas every step of the way.
Nothing is written in stone until that final vote on the third reading. More amendments were brought to the floor, and we discussed, debated and voted on them. Finally, after all the amendments were dealt with, we voted on whether the bill should pass. And it did. The donation limit was brought down to $60,000, and fusion candidates are now allowed.
The Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry committee spent the week looking at our committee bill H. 205. This bill works to create a grant program with money pulled from the Agency of Agriculture and Food Markets to help small farmers transition or diversify to a more successful kind of farming, so ag land stays as ag land. I’m a big fan of this bill and think it will help small farmers stay in farming.
The Legislature is on vacation this week, so my next update will be two weeks from now.
Please don’t forget to vote on Tuesday, March 7 for local town races.
This week we voted Universal School Meals out of committee. By a vote of 9-2, along party lines, we sent the bill to Ways and Means for their financial analysis. The bill is now out of the committee’s hands. Ways and Means will decide the best way to fund this program, then the bill is likely to go to the Appropriations committee, so it might be a while before I can say how we’re looking at getting this funded.
Our committee is actively and creatively working on ways to keep small farmers operational and thriving. We began working on H.205, an act relating to establishing the Small Farm Diversification and Transition Program, which is a bill with bipartisan co-sponsors. Vermont is an agricultural state with a long history of farming of all types, and this bill addresses the real needs of some small farmers to either diversify their products or transition to another kind of farming to stay financially viable. The transition often occurs when a dairy farmer switches to beef cattle, or a produce farmer shifts to hemp or someone begins adding goats into the mix for milk. The bill addresses four main areas of concern:
- diversifying the agricultural commodities produced;
- transitioning a small farm from one form of farming to another;
- on-farm processing of agricultural commodities:
- development of accessory on-farm businesses.
The current market shifts have created challenges to farming. This bill establishes a $250,000 grant program designed to help small farmers continue farming and maintain agricultural land as open ag land.
Saturday morning we had a legislative meet and greet with a Q&A at Snow Farm Vineyards. I was so heartened to see more than 30 people coming out on a frigid morning to ask Senators Brock, Norris and Mazza and Representative Morgan and myself questions about the current legislative session. The questions were good. Look for another one in Alburgh sometime this spring.
If there is a bill you feel strongly about, please do not hesitate to let me know. This information is extremely helpful and I group the emails by bill for easy reference, so please keep them coming.
February 13 - 17
This week found my committee busy hearing testimony about bills that have come to us. Bills (anyone in the Legislature can sponsor one) are assigned to committees by the Chair of the House. They then go on our cork board in the committee room. We take testimony from all sides to learn more about them, make edits to them, and then at some point, we'll vote on the bills and either decide to not move them forward, or to take them off the wall and present them to the entire Legislature.
This week we heard about H. 205, an act relating to establishing the Small Farm Diversification and Transition Program. This bill seeks to set up a grants program of $250,000 for small farms wanting either to diversify what they grow, or to transition to a different kind of farming to remain viable. The funding would be an appropriation from the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. This was the first time we discussed this, and we'll be meeting Legislative Counsel to go over the bill and what the legal ramifications might be.
Sometimes, to move forward, you need to look back. In discussions about H.165 Universal School Meals, we needed to learn about Act 67 which created the Local Food Incentives program. This established a tiered system where schools were able to get 15-25 cents back per meal if 15-25% of the food they used was Vermont produced. There are a lot of rules to this initiative, and the committee needs to know all of them to make the best decisions and to get more reimbursement to schools who are using at least 15% Vermont farm products in their food budget.
One of the other bills we discussed from the wall was Act 23-0761 — an act relating to miscellaneous agricultural subjects. One of those subjects was the dollar amount attached to the stipend for Vermont State Fairs and Field Days. This week we heard from Jackie Folsom representing the Fair and Field association. She was asking that their line item in the budget remain as it has been for the last few years. We learned that to qualify as a State Fair or Field Days and therefore be eligible for grant money, the event must run 3 consecutive 8-hour days, have at least 5 judged categories and much more.
This is what I love about being a Legislator. I am learning things I would have never known before from the complexity of dairy farming, to how to feed every kid two meals a day at school, to learning that judged categories at Field Days have to have prizes attached to them and so much more.
I have two loose ends to tie up. When I said last week the ice wasn't safe, I should have cited a source. Now I have one—the Department of Fish and Wildlife has issued an advisory to stay off the ice on Lake Champlain until the warm spell stops.
Several people have asked me about how Universal School Meals and other bills will be paid for. I don't know yet. Bills that have an appropriation of funding attached to them go from committee to the Ways and Means Committee whose job it is to figure that part out. Then the bill goes to the Appropriations Committee who looks at how that funding will work in the State budget. Once I know more, I'll share it.
January 30 - February 3, 2023
I've presented H.150 to the Legislature to allow Alburgh Village to change its charter to reflect the town-wide vote last year to appoint a Town Clerk and Treasurer and expand the applicant pool to folks outside of the Village. Any town Charter change has to be approved by the Legislature. Michael Morgan has joined me as a co-sponsor of the bill and it feels good to work together. Stay tuned for another bill he and I are working on.
H.165, an act relating to school food programs and universal school meals, has come through the Education and Agriculture Committees this week. I am very proud to be one of the four sponsors of this bill. Both committees will begin taking testimony on the bill as well as hearing from the Joint Fiscal Office on ways to pay for it. One of the biggest points I'd like folks to keep in mind is that for every $1 we spend on school meals, there is a $1.60 return to the Vermont economy. This largely comes from purchasing food from local farmers. I know I said this last week, and I'm going to keep repeating it, because it's important.
I'm also going to remind folks that Grand Isle County has a very high incidence of childhood hunger. Feeding children two nutritious meals a day ensures that they're eating. When a family faces hunger, knowing that their kids can get two meals a day at school often means everyone gets to have dinner. We heard in committee how much more focused the kids have been since this program started. There is no stigma with Universal School Meals, everyone eats and school administrations don't spend time acting as bill collectors for lunchroom debts.
I believe that feeding people is never a bad thing. The annual cost of this is less than 1% of the entire $2.1 billion Education Fund. As I learn more about funding this (should be this week), I will keep everyone posted.
The Budget Adjustment Act (BAA) was approved along party lines after two days of floor discussion. One piece of the Act was a request from the Governor for $3 million to give to underserved rural towns to help them maximize their ARPA funds. This money can be used to hire consultants, grant writers, engineers, etc. to help towns leverage ARPA funding. Currently Isle La Motte is the only town in the district that qualifies. Grand Isle town is close to qualifying and I've heard that towns that are close to the underserved limit will also be able to apply for funding if they need it. The BAA also allowed funding for $9.2 million of relief for organic dairy farms. Since my last update, we've lost four more organic dairy farms.
I've heard from many of you about things you like, things you don't and things you'd like to see happen. Please keep these letters coming. I read all of them and am catching up on responding.
January 23-27, 2023
This week my committee (Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry) spent much of the week focusing on learning more about Universal School Meals and the crisis facing organic dairy farmers throughout the state.
We spent a lot of time hearing about Universal School Meals from five school nutritionists, and from Rosie Kruger, State Director of Child Nutrition Programs for the Agency of Education. It seems abundantly clear that the program is working. One aspect of USM is the Farm Fresh School Meals which uses food from local farmers in school meals. Scaling up to use more Vermont products is something all the witnesses want to do. Currently, the schools who came to us buy 12-27% of their school’s food from local Vermont farmers. The more local food school districts buy from farmers, the more money they get reimbursed from the federal government and the less they’ll use state money. For every $1.00 spent on Universal School Meals, $1.60 is returned to the Vermont economy.
We held a joint hearing with the Senate Agriculture committee to take testimony about the organic dairy farm crisis. Maddie Kempner of NOFA-VT (Northeast Organic Farming Association of VT) started off the discussion by asking that we consider a one-time $9.2 million appropriation for Vermont organic dairy farmers in the Budget Adjustment Act. The BAA is the time mid-way through the fiscal year where the Governor and the Legislature adjust the budget. We stand to lose up to 20 organic dairies in the next few months if nothing changes.
We heard from seven organic dairy farmers about the severe economic issues they’re facing. There has been a snowball effect for these farmers borne of sky-rocketing production costs— from rising fuel costs and feed that’s more expensive than ever because of the conflict in Ukraine, unanticipated inflation increases, and a severe drought last summer that has left many farmers struggling.
These farmers are smart, hard-working and diversifying their farms as much as they can. And they’re still struggling. The price for organic milk has not kept pace with that of conventional milk. Organic dairy farmers do not have the safety net that conventional dairy farmers have because the calculations the Dairy Margin Coverage uses do not take into account the higher costs incurred by organic farmers. The DMC is an insurance program which helps bridge the gap when dairy prices are lower than production costs, and since organic dairy farms don’t have the volume of many conventional farms, their reimbursement from the DMC is insufficient.
Our committee voted unanimously to submit a letter to the Appropriations Committee in support of this one-time $9.2 million appropriation for organic dairy farmers as part of the Budget Adjustment Act.
January 17-20, 2023
This past week was very busy as my committee really dug into the issues that face Vermont food producers of all kinds as well as the complexity of Universal School Meals. NOFA-VT (Northeast Organic Farmers of Vermont) and the Vermont Farm Bureau came to the committee. The main take-away was our farmers are in trouble and as one farmer put it, “We’re not okay.” She elaborated that dairy farmers are facing the same struggles as other industries: Housing costs, healthcare, and childcare. If you’re a farmer and have particular issues you’d like me to know about, please reach out. I’d love to hear from you.
Some of the issues farmers have addressed have been taken up by the Rural Caucus’ two bills:
Workforce Housing bill. To address the housing shortage, this bill proposes to 1) break down regulations barriers, 2) provide strategic investments, 3) add capacity at the local and regional level for planning and zoning.
Right to Repair Equipment. The bill would reform existing laws so farmers and independent repair businesses can access the same repair documentation, diagnostics, tools, parts, firmware, etc. that authorized dealers have.
My committee also took testimony from Hunger Free Vermont to explain more about the success of Universal School Meals and to start the discussion about making it permanent. To put this in perspective, Alburgh’s Community Education Center has just over 80% of their students qualifying for these meals, and just under half of the students in Grand Isle School qualify. We will hear much more about Universal School Meals this week as well.
I forgot to mention that last week we had a community gathering at the Milton Library where folks could meet all the Legislators and Senators who represent Milton. This was a truly non-partisan event as we’re all striving to keep party politics out of things and focus instead on what people actually need. I was so happy to see over 25 people in attendance. Everyone asked great questions and I was so impressed, not only with the turn out, but the interest and commitment of the audience. Be on the lookout for similar events in Grand Isle County.
Staff at the County Courthouse in North Hero reached out to me to see if I could help with their understaffing situation. This week I met with Teri Corsones, the Vermont State Court Administrator, and she said plans were in the works to help alleviate some of the problem.
January 10-13, 2023
It’s been an exciting blur of a start to the legislative session.
I’m on the Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry Committee. While I come to this with experience from my work at the Champlain Islands Food Shelf as a volunteer and Board member, I am learning a great deal about ag and forestry from committee presentations. Currently, my committee doesn’t have any bills (this should change soon), but we’ve shared issues of concerns that we’re going to be working on. One of them is supporting farmers who might be transitioning away from the farming they’ve been doing. Last week I met with a constituent who is using four acres of his family dairy farm to grow hemp as a way to supplement their dairy farm income.
If you’re a farmer, I’d love to talk with you about any issues you might be facing and how my committee can be of assistance.
Other things my committee is focusing on is sustainable farming and forestry, and within that soil replenishment and carbon sequestration. As another committee member put it, “How can I, as a farmer, leave my land in better shape than when I began farming.”
I’m also a member of the Rural Caucus. This caucus looks at all the bills that are being offered to ensure the voices of rural Vermonters are heard. This is a truly non-partisan caucus and a real highlight of my week. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, comments and questions.