Parallel bills to invest in rural economic development have clearedkey hurdles in the House and the Senate, and the House version isscheduled for a vote Thursday. The bills create a Working Lands Enterprise Fund, which wouldinvest state money in grants and loans to businesses related to therural economy, infrastructure like slaughter facilities andincubator kitchens, and direct services to businesses related tothe farm, food, and forest economies. The bills passed unanimously out of each chamber s agriculturecommittees, but funding has been less unanimous. The HouseAppropriations Committee voted Tuesday to allocate $2.1 million forits version of the bill (H.496). It s less than the $3 millionoriginally in the bill, but supporters say the amount is sufficientto start needed state investment in rural economic development.
A coalition supporting the Working Lands Enterprise Investment billgrew out of the Council on the Future of Vermont, a 2007-2009project of the Vermont Center on Rural Development. In over a dozenpublic forums and more than 100 focus groups plus surveys and otherinputs, Vermonters consistently expressed their support for astrong economy for farm- and forest-based enterprises. On thesurveys, the highest-ranked statement of values was I value theworking landscape and its heritage. Vermont Center for Rural Development now leads the WorkingLandscape Partnership, which supports these bills.
“If current trends continue, we could lose the workinglandscape within a generation,” VCRD executive director PaulCostello said in an interview before the session started. The center looked at the contradiction between the forest andfields landscape valued by Vermonters, according to itspolls, and the decline in the forest and dairy economies. At the same time, we have a local foods movement that is growingrapidly. We re first in the nation in per capita organic farm CSAdevelopment [and] farmers markets direct sales toconsumers,” Costello said. E Light IPL Hair Removal
“We have a great traditionin the forest products industry, a great deal of skill, beautifulhardwood forests that are very enviable globally. So tremendousassets to start with, but we believe that Vermont needs to look atthese assets and determine that they are essential to our economicfuture and set as a priority the future of the working landscapeeconomy as a foundation for the rest of the economy of the state. Rural economic development has also been the subject of informalstudy by the Legislature s Rural Economic Development WorkingGroup, created during Gaye Symington s tenure as Speaker of theHouse. The bill sets up a Working Landscape Enterprise Board to overseethe administration of the fund. Fractional Co2 Laser Machine Manufacturer
The House and Senate versions ofthe bill set up the membership of the board differently, but inboth cases, it s a board that needs a meeting space considerablybigger than a breadbox. The House version sets it at 19 members,with 11 appointed by the existing Vermont Agriculture and ForestProducts Development board. The Senate bill sets up a 24-memberboard, with the governor, the Speaker of the House, and the SenateCommittee on Committees each appointing six. Those appointments areconstrained by descriptions of the types of appointee, e.g., two ofthe governor s appointees are to be a person familiar with theagricultural or forest tourism industry and a member of theNortheast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. IPL Spare Parts Manufacturer
In both bills, the main authority for rural economic developmentlies in the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets rather thanthe Agency of Commerce and Community Development though theCommerce secretary is named as a member of the board. Rep. WillStevens, I-Shoreham, lead sponsor of the bill, is an organic farmerand member of the Agriculture Committee. He explained in aninterview that the program is housed with the Agriculture Agency because of the natural resource focus, our land-based focus.There are many opportunities and tools available on the commerceside of things, which is fine.
We re saying through this bill thatin fact our natural resource base is worthy of that attention too.It s not a silo-building or either/or. It s an and situation. While Costello declined to make specific predictions about thenumber of jobs that the Working Lands bill would create, he pointedin a recent interview to a report just out from the VermontSustainable Jobs Fund s Farm-to-Plate program, which counted 500jobs created in one year in the state s food and agriculturesector. With state money anticipated to pull in four to five timesas much private investment, Costello said the new bill leveragesfar beyond what we ve had in agriculture and forest products. Ithink we re at the beginning of something that s really big,really significant for the rural economy of the state.
The House Appropriations Committee informally set aside $2.1million to the bill on March 16, without examining the bill indetail. On Tuesday, Will Stevens and House Agriculture Committeechair Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, testified to the AppropriationsCommittee about the bill, and the committee voted to appropriatethe $2.1 million. The vote was along party lines, with theDemocrats supporting the bill. (Kitty Toll, D-Danville, a supporterof the bill, was reportedly out of the Legislature responding tothe killing of Melissa Jenkins, the St.
Johnsbury teacher who wasfound dead earlier this week.) Committee member Joe Acinapura, R/D-Brandon, supports the bill sprinciple but voted against it on fiscal grounds. The concept isgood. It s a job creator, he said the day after the vote.However, he expects the shortfall to be greater than projected, andthe House budget leaves $16 million in reserves a figure hefears is inadequate. If we re going to put $2.1 million againsta new initiative, even though it s a great initiative, what are wegoing to take the money from? There are just too many uncertaintiesout there. The full House is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday.
So far,Costello has seen general and broad interest in it amonglegislators. Everyone recognizes that this is the bill that stepsforward, Costello said. There s not another jobs bill. Sen.
Ann Cummings, D-Washington, has indicated that the Senate willtake up work on the House bill rather than continue working on itsown version.