The Word in the House 2/15/2016 - Entrepreneurial Success from Working Lands

Results Based Accountability (RBA) is an assessment method the Legislature is using to evaluate the effectiveness of state government programs. Each House committee has been asked to review programs under its jurisdiction based on three questions: How much did we do? How well did we do it? Is anyone better off? The House Natural Resources & Energy Committee had the opportunity to hear a report of the Working Lands Enterprise Board on its activities supporting the economy of rural Vermont.

The Board and the Working Lands Enterprise Fund (WLEF) were established by Act 142 in 2012 for the purpose of growing “the economies, cultures, and communities of Vermont’s working landscape by making essential, catalytic investments in … Vermont’s farm and forest economy.” This is done by providing access to capital, technical assistance, and workforce development together with policies that optimize the agricultural and forest use of Vermont lands while protecting human, environmental and animal health. Business grants are available for startup and emerging working lands businesses for infrastructure, marketing, and research and development. Service provider grants are available for non-profit, educational, private sector groups or partnerships that provide technical assistance to Vermont working lands businesses.

Since Act 142 went into effect in 2012 $3.2M in Working Lands funds were distributed to 112 agricultural and forestry projects throughout all 14 counties in Vermont. These investments leveraged another $4.9M in matching funds resulting in 106 new jobs to date with a corresponding $12M in aggregated gross income. As projects currently committed are completed and others continue to grow, an additional 124 jobs are expected to be created.

The presentation of the report to our committee included two entrepreneurs from the food industry and two from the forest products industry who recounted how their businesses were helped not only by grants, but by the connections made through the Working Lands Coalition. For example, Screamin’ Ridge Farm in Montpelier is a vertically integrated seed to plate business that grows vegetables using sustainable practices to produce the Joe’s Kitchen line of soup products. Two grants of $15,000 and $50,000 over 2 years helped the farm purchase equipment to boost production by 500%, hire 3 full time employees, and provide a market for locally grown vegetables from other farms. Similarly, a timber harvester and a timber frame manufacturer had both received equipment grants from the WLEF. With sawmills closing throughout the northeast, the harvester was in jeopardy of losing his business. At the same time Winterwood Timberframes was having a hard time sourcing quality logs for its operation. Through the Working Lands Coalition, they connected with each other for their mutual benefit.

Two of the businesses that were helped through the WLEF in Chittenden County include the Bread & Butter Farm on Cheese Factory Road in Shelburne and Maple Wind Farm in Richmond. The Bread & Butter Farm received $7250 to build a wash, pack and processing kitchen for vegetables, and to develop on-farm events and educational programs. Maple Wind Farm received $67,400 for upgrades including a blast chiller for poultry, increased freezer capacity, processing equipment, and a small retail building for their agricultural tourism business. With the help of seed money from the WLEF to leverage loans and by finding ways to add value to their basic agricultural operations, these entrepreneurs were able to expand their businesses, grow jobs, and pump more money into the local economy. Through programs like these Vermont has developed a strong reputation for food products, craft beer and cheese, artisanal wood products and other products that depend on our working lands and has made good use of taxpayer money.

I welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (

Legislative Report 2/8/2016 - Of Elephants and Rhinos

The Vermont Statehouse is called "The People's House" not just because it is the seat of the legislative branch of state government, but also because it functions as a living museum and is open to the public. Every day during the legislative session, groups representing one interest or another visit with displays and information and talk to legislators one-on-one as well as testify in committees. One such group that visited last week were Vermonters representing the Humane Society. They were there to support six bills regarding the humane treatment of animals that have been introduced in the House and Senate. The bills include adequately sheltering dogs and cats kept outdoors (H.512), banning the use of lead ammunition when hunting (H.460), prohibiting the use of gestation crates for pregnant sows (H.374), prohibiting the possession, sale and distribution of shark fins (H.122), prohibiting the docking the tail of a cow (S.22), and restricting the sale of ivory and rhino horn products (H.297). While most of these bills have had committee hearings, H.297, the ivory bill, seems to be generating the most interest and is likely to be voted out of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee soon. There are a number of reasons this bill is moving forward: threat of species extinction, connection of trade to terrorism, and connecting interstate and intrastate requirements among others.

African elephants and rhinoceroses are in danger of being hunted to extinction solely for their tusks and horns. The numbers of African elephants have declined from around 4 million in the 1940s to about 350,000 today. While such hunting is illegal under the laws of African nations and the ivory and rhino horn trade is prohibited at the international level as well as by U.S. law, there is a thriving black market that funds terrorist groups and other criminal organizations. The only hope for the animal species is to try to shut down the market through legal efforts and education. The Endangered Species Act regulates the interstate trade of ivory in the U.S. and includes a proposal to allow only limited types of ivory products to be sold across state lines. It does not regulate sales of ivory or ivory products within a state. H.297 would apply similar restrictions to sales of ivory within Vermont.

H.297 does not prohibit simple possession of ivory. However, it would prohibit the sale of ivory or ivory products with some exceptions. For example, the sale of antiques as defined by federal requirements and of items weighing less than 200 grams, roughly 7 ounces, would not be prohibited. These conditions would allow the sale of most musical instruments, including pianos with ivory keys.

Among the visitors at the Humane Society reception in the statehouse cafeteria last week was a Charlotte student, Taegen Yardley, who attends Vermont Commons School in South Burlington. Taegen and several classmates produced a film about the illegal ivory trade and spoke to the attendees at the reception. The film can be seen at H.297 will have my support when it comes to the floor.

Finally, Town Meeting Day is March 1st and includes the Presidential Primary in Vermont. I want to remind high school seniors that if they will turn 18 before the November election they are allowed to register and vote in the primary. Anyone who needs to register to vote can do so online at

I welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (

Gubernatorial Candidate Sue Minter Interviewed

Once again, the Chittenden County Democrats Show was privileged to host one of our Democratic candidates for Governor, Sue Minter.  Sue Minter served as Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation under Governor Peter Shumlin, and was responsible for overseeing the recovery operations following the devastating tropical storm Irene in 2012. In this appearance February 1st, she talked about her background and her candidacy and what she hopes to accomplish as Vermont's next Governor.

The Word in the House 2016-02-01 - Parliamentary Procedure and Politics

Act 46 was crafted last year to address the realities of increasing education costs due to declining enrollment and a 130 year-old structure of governance. In many parts of Vermont implementation has been an overwhelming success. But for some it was clear that the cost containment threshold provisions weren’t working as intended. A bipartisan group of lawmakers worked together to craft a solution in time for Town Meeting.

After four weeks of hammering out House and Senate responses to the outcry by school boards, the end seemed to be in sight. Senate bill S.233 would have repealed the spending thresholds altogether.  The House voted to amend the bill by adjusting the threshold for per-pupil spending increases upward by 0.9%, reducing the penalty from $1 to $.25/dollar of excess spending, and giving school districts the option of which Agency of Education calculation to use.  The Agency’s original calculation was modified mid-January and changed the effect on tax rates for many districts.  The House decided to let each school district choose the calculation that provided the better benefit.

After considerable debate and a number of further amendments which were defeated last Wednesday, the House approved by a wide bi-partisan margin the amendment and sent it back to the Senate.  The Senate accepted most of the changes but further modified it on Thursday evening and sent it back to the House. It looked like the bill would get to the Governor’s desk by Friday afternoon just barely in time for many school districts to finalize their budgets by the Sunday deadline for Town Meeting agendas.

The additional changes the Senate made included bumping up the excess spending penalty to $.40/dollar, exempting from penalty those districts whose per-pupil spending remained below the statewide average despite year-to-year increases that exceeded the threshold, and eliminating the spending threshold entirely for the 2018 budgets.  To get a final vote in the House, however, required a suspension of the rules since one legislative day is required for a bill to appear on the House Calendar before a vote can be taken. This is where it got sticky. Despite assurances by both the Education and Ways & Means Committees that the 2018 budget provisions would be reviewed later this session, the Republican minority refused to suspend the rules.  This set up a situation where the bill could not be passed in time for those remaining school budgets to be finalized and meet the 30-day notice requirement for Town Meeting. 

After repeated conferences of the party leaders with Speaker Shap Smith failed to resolve the impasse, the Democrats and Progressives agreed to adjourn for the day and reconvene at one minute past midnight.  That would officially be the next legislative day and allow us to take up the bill and vote on it.  When we reconvened at 12:01 AM, another amendment was offered that would have prevented the bill’s passage until Tuesday at the earliest. After an hour of debate including two roll-call votes, the bill was passed as amended by the Senate and sent to Governor Shumlin who signed it hours later with the following statement: “Act 46 is working better than I had imagined. Over half of all students in this state now live in communities that are moving forward with or having serious conversations about how to work together to improve educational quality and provide relief to taxpayers. That is happening because of Act 46 and it is how we will right size our education system to reflect the fact that there are 20,000 fewer students today than in 1998. The spending caps had become the enemy of that important work, and I am pleased the Legislature acted quickly to make this change.”

I welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (