Working Lands Enterprise Investment bill approved in the Vermont Senate
The Vermont Senate gave preliminary approval to the Working Lands Enterprise Investment bill (H 496) on Friday afternoon. A final vote on the bill is expected on Monday afternoon on the Senate floor. The bill will then return to the House, where Representatives will decide whether to accept the changes made by the Senate or to form a committee of conference. The bill was approved by the Vermont Senate with a strong non-partisan vote of 28-0.
The bill would create the Working Lands Enterprise Fund and the Working Lands Enterprise Board, which will oversee the Fund. The intent is to stimulate a concerted economic development effort on behalf of Vermont’s agriculture and forest products sectors by systematically advancing entrepreneurism, business development, and job creation.
The Senate split the original bill in two, passing the structural part of the bill and leaving the funding question for the Senate Appropriations committee. The House had committed $2 million to the initiative. The Appropriations committee is expected to approve the “Big Bill” on Monday and will likely include between $400,000 and $500,000 for the Working Lands initiative in their budget package.
The vote was a roll call vote with all Senators present voting yes (Senators John Campbell (D-Windsor) and Sally Fox (D-Chittenden) were absent for the vote). Senator Philip Baruth (D-Chittendent) enthused, “This represents the Agriculture Committee’s achievement of the year.” He asked for the vote to be taken by roll call, and when asked to clarify which procedural vote he was seeking to be taken by roll, he answered, “Whichever would be more resplendent.”
Senator Bobby Starr (D/R-Essex-Orleans), while reporting on the bill on the Senate floor explained, “This bill is important because it addresses areas of economic development over which we have a lot of control and influence – our people, our image, our brand, and our natural resources base. The bill is not primarily about preserving our landscape so much as about our natural resources and the enterprises that make up our farms and forest lands – the individual businesses and the individuals that contribute to our working lands. In this economic development model, we don’t have to create the asset, but what we do have to do is make sure the people can work the land.” He added, “We are targeting...the people who are willing to commit to making a life on our working lands.”
Starr also noted that Senator Bill Doyle (R-Washington) had included a question about the Working Lands bill on his annual Town Meeting Day Poll. Starr noted, “For some reason the senior Senator from Washington even stuck it on his poll this year, and he said to me, ‘I’ve never seen such a wide spread of people supportive of your question.’ 89 percent of the people who filled that out supported the working landscape here in Vermont.”
Senator Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) said, “In many regards I support the spirit and the investment that this bill represents,” and then asked about overlap with currently existing efforts.
In response, Starr noted the Working Lands Enterprise Board and Fund will be a “brand new, state-of-the-art type of program dealing with investments in the ... natural resources of our state.”
Senator Anthony Pollina (P/D/W-Washington) highlighted the importance of the bill, saying, “I just want to briefly remind us how important this kind of effort really is....Right now, American agriculture policy is really premised on eliminating family-size farms.” Pollina referred to a report called, “An Adaptive Program for Agriculture” by the Research and Policy Committee of the Committee for Economic Development. They said, ‘The recommendation we’re making here is to induce excess resources to move rapidly out of agriculture,’ and what they were talking about ... was that they wanted to reduce the number of farms in this country in order to make agriculture work better for them.”
Pollina went on to explain, “I just want to remind us that when it comes to supporting family farm agriculture in this state, we’re really on our own. The federal government is not going to help us, as much as they might want to try.... In Vermont, it’s fair to say, we’re doing very well. We’re doing well because we have a lot of entrepreneurial farmers and we have a lot of Vermonters who support their agricultural neighbors. But we’re doing well despite the best efforts of American agricultural policy and corporate agriculture to drive us out of business. What’s important about this effort is that it really does begin to talk about making an investment in agriculture around the state.”
Senator Sara Kittell (D-Franklin) summed up the Agriculture Committee’s work, noting, “This is good work and good legislation.”
Paul Costello, Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, who worked with the Vermont Working Landscape Partnership to support the bill, celebrated the passage of the bill in the Senate. “We applaud the legislature’s work on this important initiative this year. We look forward to working with the House and Senate to resolve the minor differences between the two versions of the bill and to ensure that adequate funding is provided for the first year’s work.”
Vermont Working Landscape Partnership. 4.23.2012.