Legislative Report 2/25/2021 - Promoting agritourism helps family farms

 Every two years in January a new legislature is sworn in and serves until a new legislature is sworn in two years later. During this time almost a thousand bills are introduced in the House and several hundred in the Senate.  Only a hundred or so actually pass in both the House and Senate and get signed into law.  Many, however, get incorporated into other bills dealing with similar topics and become part of Vermont’s statutes.  Only members of the legislature can introduce bills.  However, if the administration proposes legislation, it will go to the committee of jurisdiction and ask the committee to sponsor the bill.  Committees also may initiate a bill to set policy, such as the Broadband Bill being developed in my committee, Energy & Technology.

During my 10-year tenure in the Vermont House I have introduced many bills.  The language of some made it into other bills, such as the requirement that the money received from the Volkswagen emissions fraud settlement be used to promote electric vehicles.  A handful of bills I’ve introduced have gotten passed on their own.  Last year I introduced a bill to promote agritourism. It limits the liability of farms engaging in agritourism for mishaps that might occur to visitors.  The bill passed in the House but was derailed in the Senate because of the pandemic.  I reintroduced the bill again this year hoping for a better outcome.

With less than two percent of Americans living on a farm, the public is becoming more and more removed from farming practices and agricultural production. Consumers are very interested in learning where their food comes from and about the technological advancements behind producing that food. Agritourism provides an excellent opportunity to open meaningful connections between agriculture and the public. The vast majority of farms depend on outside income to stay in business, and any additional revenue from agritourism could significantly increase their economic viability.

Agritourism is a growing business opportunity in Vermont.  Some
local examples include Shelburne Farms, Philo Ridge Farm and Adam’s Berry Farm in Charlotte, Isham Family Farm in Williston, and Bread & Butter Farm in Shelburne. Tourism is dormant at the moment due to the pandemic, but once we are back to normal operation, Vermont will benefit from its resurgence.  Agritourism epitomizes the "Vermont brand". It takes advantage of what VT is known for: agriculture, recreation, a pastoral vibe. And it provides another source of income for family farms by showcasing what they do best. However, the risk of a lawsuit keeps many family farms from engaging in agritourism.  Visiting a farm exposes the visitor to certain inherent risks of injury such as bee stings, uneven terrain, contamination from touching farm animals, or falling off a hayride. A single incident can result in bankruptcy.

My bill (H.89) provides a reasonable expectation of liability for the farmer. It provides a clear definition of what constitutes agritourism: an interactive or passive activity for recreation, entertainment, or educational purposes, including farming, food production, historical, cultural, pick-your-own, and nature-based activities. It does not include lodging at a farm or shopping at a roadside farm stand. The bill requires the farm to post signs in clearly visible locations warning of the inherent risks of participating in farm activities and to include the warning in any written contracts entered into with the participant.  While protecting the farm from liability for inherent risks, it does not absolve the business from injuries resulting from gross negligence.

41 members of the House – Democrats, Republicans Progressives and Independents - co-sponsored the bill and it passed on a unanimous vote before heading to the Senate.  If the Senate agrees with the House, Vermont will join 33 other states with similar agritourism laws.

I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238). 

Legislative Report 2/11/2021 - Budgets and Broadband

The Vermont House has worked productively in the last two weeks.  We approved the annual Budget Adjustment bill (H.138), a mid-year technical adjustment to keep the state’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget in balance.  H.138 passed with strong support and included investmentsto support the Legislature’s continuing response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Much of the adjustment was a result of reallocating unused Coronavirus Relief Funds, which were supposed to expire at the end of last year but were extended by the $900B relief bill passed by Congress last December. CRF money was redirected to assistance for the hard-hit hospitality industry, for emergency food, hotel-housing for the homeless, and rental assistance, for Vermont State Colleges system support, and for completion of broadband expansion projects.

Speaking of broadband, the pandemic has highlighted the necessity of high-speed internet for education, work, and communications. The Energy & Technology Committee has been working on a major bill to accelerate broadband deployment to every part of the state. Building on the Communication Union District (CUD) model that was authorized in 2015 and enhanced last year, availability to planning grants and low-cost loans will be provided to CUDs to build fiber networks throughout Vermont. CUDs are organized by towns that want to build fiber to the areas where for-profit internet service providers find it unprofitable to reach.  Most for-profit companies build their infrastructure along the main arteries with a higher residential density. Fiber-optic lines cost about $33,000 per mile to build. The more subscribers within that mile, the lower the cost per subscriber.

Local telecommunications carriers like WCVT or Consolidated Communications also provide internet service. The US Department of Agriculture recently accepted bids from traditional carriers to extend broadband in rural areas under the Rural Digital Opportunities Fund (RDOF). With the objective of getting service to every Vermonter as quickly as possible, we are encouraging CUDs and telecom providers to work with each other to avoid duplication of effort. The rate at which high-speed broadband can be built depends not only on funding but on the availability of skilled line workers and of the required materials, both of which are in short supply. Our bill will also include funding for workforce training in partnership with Vermont Technical College. Even with this support, broadband to the “last mile” will take years to accomplish. We will continue to work on the details of the bill over the next few weeks.

There's good news on the 9.5 cent education property tax rate increase that created a stir in December. Improved non-property tax revenues in the Education Fund and input from school districts have resulted in a reduction to roughly a one cent increase. This may change as more information about actual budgets becomes available, but it is not expected to change dramatically.

Also on the education front, the sustainability of the pension funds for teachers and state employees has become a top priority with the release of a recommendation from State Treasurer Beth Pearce which would increase contributions and decrease benefits.  The source of the underfunded pension fund problem was a decision by the legislature in the 1990s to underfund the system based on overly optimistic assumptions about investment returns. The unfunded liability is $1.5B at present and is expected to grow another $600M if remediation steps are not taken.  The legislature is studying the report and seeking alternatives by working with all parties to assure Vermonters that they will have their retirement benefit while also curtailing the unfunded liability. Pension contracts are an obligation that should not be set aside. Teachers and state employees should not be penalized for the fiduciary mistakes made by government. We must solve this dilemma fairly.

I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238).  

Legislative Report 1/28/2021 - Reflections on a momentous week

 The first few weeks of a legislative biennium get off to a relatively slow start, not momentous at all.  Bills are just beginning to be introduced and assigned to committees for consideration.  Not only do new members have to get up to speed on subject matter of the committees to which they are assigned, but returning members assigned to different committees than before may have to as well. In other words, there is not a lot to report.

There were two exceptions, however. During the first full week we were back in session, the House quickly passed a bill that authorizes municipalities and school districts to hold town meetings remotely, use Australian ballots to vote on all matters including budgets, or postpone town meetings to later in the Spring. The Senate quickly followed suit and sent the bill to the Governor for his signature.  The Senate was also at work passing S.9, which extends certain workers’ compensation amendments related to COVID-19 that were enacted last year. These amendments give the benefit of doubt in certain circumstances that a worker who is diagnosed with COVID-19 is entitled to benefits under Vermont’s workers’ compensation laws. The House concurred with the Senate after fixing a date reference in the bill that had been overlooked.  The next significant action will be to approve the budget adjustment bill that the Appropriations Committee has been hard at work on since Day 2 of the session.

What really made the week special, though, was the change of administration in Washington, DC, as I joined most of my fellow Americans in welcoming the Biden administration with the hope of a less divisive political atmosphere for the next four years.  I was especially impressed with poet Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem. In it she says,

It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into and how we repair it

It is with sincere hope that Congress, the Senate included, will be able to join with the administration in an effective national response to the pandemic and hit the economic defibrillator once again to jump-start the economy.  The executive orders President Biden signed as soon as he took office will go a long way to reverse those of the previous administration that diminished the greatness of America.

For the past four years, a small package sat on my bookshelf waiting for its moment. In December of 2016, I attended a conference in DC and had an opportunity with other legislators from across the country to attend a briefing in the White House Office Building.  We were given favors of Hershey kisses in little packages with the presidential seal. I decided to save mine until the incoming President was no longer in office. I had almost forgotten about it until the night of the inauguration after watching the televised spectacular fireworks display on the National Mall.

It was time. After 4 years, the kisses were as sweet as I expected, capping off this truly momentous week.

I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238). 

Legislative Report 1/9/2021 - A New Beginning

Legislative biennium begins amid national turmoil

As the world reacted in shock to the events unfolding in Washington, DC, on January 6th, the Vermont Legislature was convening for the 2021 – 2022 biennium.  The storming of the U.S. Capitol for the first time since the War of 1812 by a mob egged on by a self-serving President, who refused to recognize that he lost the election, drew strong reactions throughout Vermont’s state government.  That afternoon Governor Scott condemned the lawlessness and called for the President’s immediate resignation or removal from office.  The following day the Vermont House passed with a vote of 130 to 16 a resolution sponsored by Democrats, Republicans, Progressives, and Independents calling for the same. (The text of the resolution can be found at https://legislature.vermont.gov/bill/status/2022/J.R.H.1.)  In my lifetime only the 9/11 attack on our nation’s capital compares, and this time it was against the Constitution and our democracy itself by our own citizens.  This is not what America stands for, and we need the country to make a course correction immediately. I hope that the nation can begin to resolve our deep political differences starting today.

Here in Vermont the legislature began its work not in the usual fashion with pomp and circumstance in a packed chamber with friends and relatives looking on as members, new and returning, were sworn in, but from our own homes over Zoom.  The House unanimously elected its Speaker, Representative Jill Krowinski of Burlington, as well as the Clerk of the House, Betsy Ann Wrask. Members were assigned to committees, and resolutions were passed to formalize the rules and procedures under which the legislature will operate while the pandemic emergency order is in place.

Traditionally, the Governor would give his inaugural speech to a joint session of the House and Senate in the House chamber.  This year, in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, Governor Scott chose to deliver the speech on television in the evening.  He did briefly address the joint session online earlier in the afternoon, congratulating the historic ascension of women to almost all the leadership positions in the legislature.  In the House they include Speaker Jill Krowinski, Democratic Majority Leader Emily Long of Newfane, Republican Minority Leader Pattie McCoy of Poultney, and Progressive Minority Leader Selene Colburn of Burlington.    The Senate is led by Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray, President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, and Democratic Majority Leader Alison Clarkson.  Senator Randy Brock was elected as the Republican Minority Leader.

In his address to the legislature, Governor Scott acknowledged the necessity of working remotely, keeping meetings open to the public online, and working together for the benefit of all Vermonters.  He said that while the pandemic brought heartache to many, it also showed that Vermonters care for each other.  This care has made Vermont more successful in controlling the spread of the virus than many other states.  While we cannot know when life will get back to normal, there is a light at the end of the tunnel because of the vaccines that are now available and being distributed.  He reiterated his long-standing goals of growing the economy, protecting the vulnerable, and making Vermont more affordable, goals that are shared by legislators as well.  The hard work now begins on how to achieve those goals.

I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238).