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Lawmakers to let Current Use veto stand

MONTPELIER — Legislative leaders will let stand Gov. James Douglas’ override of proposed changes to the “Current Use” program, opting against a special session of the Legislature in favor of designating the issue a top priority for next year.
Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro-Tempore Peter Shumlin, both Democrats, announced the decision on Tuesday, saying that forgoing the special session would save Vermont taxpayers money. The announcement came after Douglas, a Middlebury Republican, last week vetoed bill H.485, which would have overhauled parts of the Use Value Appraisal Program, as Current Use is officially known.
The program provides tax breaks for owners of farm and forest lands who keep their land in production rather than develop it with buildings and roads.
Douglas said the legislators’ proposed changes to the program would have unfairly increased taxes while instituting highly nuanced, complicated and administratively complex changes to Current Use, a program that rewards landowners with lower taxes for keeping working farm or forest land free from development.
“Just when Vermont’s agriculture and forest products industries are facing the most daunting economic times in modern history, H. 485 imposes additional taxes and burdensome bureaucracy on the owners of our state’s farm and forest land,” Douglas wrote. “This approach is in direct opposition to helping our traditional industries prosper in the 21st century.”
Legislators disagreed. They said their proposed changes to the program — which would have included a new $128 fee for every landowner in the program, as well as higher taxes for withdrawing land from Current Use — would have dissuaded landowners from abusing the Current Use program by “parking” land for tax savings in the short term and land development in the future.
The changes would have also raised money to update the Current Use program by digitizing maps and streamlining the way the program runs.
All in all, the proposed changes would have shaved $1.6 million from the total cost of running the Current Use program, which is popular but expensive. A third of the land in Vermont is enrolled, and right now, the state reimburses towns $11 million each year to make up for lost tax revenue.
“The Current Use bill addressed the very real concerns of Vermonters that the current system is being used by some to subsidize development,” Smith said on Tuesday in a press release. “We are disappointed the governor was unwilling to respond to these concerns. It will be a top priority of the next legislature to restore the current use program to its intended purpose of promoting the working Vermont landscape we all know and love.”
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at kathrynf@addisonindependent.com.

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