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).