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Farmers focus on water quality issue

BRIDPORT — Members of Addison County’s agricultural community are concerned about how they could be affected by the state’s latest push to clean up Lake Champlain.
Gov. Peter Shumlin in his January inaugural address cited cleanup of the lake as one of his top priorities for the 2015-2016 biennium. He noted that farmers must play a key role in that effort, through water quality initiatives that are in part designed to reduce manure runoff into Lake Champlain. Manure is a leading source of phosphorous pollution in the lake.
Shumlin said the state would assist farmers in implementing best practices to reduce runoff, but also suggested that those who don’t comply be excluded from receiving tax benefits through the Current Use Program.
The impact of water quality on farmers was a major topic of discussion at this season’s first legislative breakfast held on Monday at the Bridport Grange Hall. The legislative breakfast series is sponsored by Bridport Grange No. 303 and the Addison County Farm Bureau.
Mark Boivin of Addison, a former dairy farmer, pointed out some of the hardships the agricultural community faces and noted the prospect of further regulatory and financial hurdles from Montpelier.
“The governor has proposed a tax on fertilizer and on land,” Boivin said. “If you want farmers to implement water quality improvements on the farm, they need the technology, they need the assistance, which can be just telling people that ‘you can try this and we’re not going to come down your throat.’”
He said the more taxes that farmers face, the fewer resources they have to meet water quality standards.
“It comes down to the law of unintended consequences,” he said. “Every problem has at least one solution that’s worse than the original problem.”
“I get kind of tired when I look at what’s going on in Montpelier — It’s kind of like a three-shell Monty game, they’re moving the shells around to confuse people,” Boivin said.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, is a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee. He said there has been more discussion and presentations about water quality issues this year in Montpelier than at any other time during his lengthy legislative career. He added the federal government this year has offered a lot of matching grant money to fund water quality initiatives, so the House Agriculture Committee has been spending a lot of time looking for state dollars to leverage more money from Washington.
“I’ve got to tell you the fertilizer tax is unpopular in our committee,” Smith said. “The farmers that purchase the largest volume of fertilizer already … have already installed a great deal of the best management practices to improve water quality.”
Smith added water quality is not only the responsibility of farmers.
“It’s an issue that is the responsibility of everyone who lives in the state of Vermont,” he said. “We need to find a funding source that’s fair for all Vermonters, and that’s going to be a challenge.”
That said. Smith said he is pleased that the state’s agricultural community has “stepped up to the plate, and they have told us they are willing to pay their fair share to get the job done … We have a good team player in the agricultural community.”
Other discussion at Monday’s kickoff legislative breakfast keyed on:
•  The anticipated filing of legislation to legalize recreational marijuana in the state of Vermont. Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Hinesburg, has served notice he plans to file such legislation. That initiative is getting mixed reviews from lawmakers and some criticism by law enforcement and health care officials.
Physician Bill Fifield of Bridport was candid in his criticism of a marijuana legalization bill. He pointed to research indicating negative effects of marijuana use on motor skills and short-term memory, the identification of marijuana as a “gateway drug” for some users, and the lack of equipment to measure possible impairment in drivers who use pot before getting behind the wheel.
“I support the use of medical marijuana in cancer patients, but I think it would be a mistake to legalize this drug for general use,” Fifield said. “I think it would be a step in the wrong direction.”
Most state lawmakers have said they are skeptical of the chances for a recreational marijuana bill being passed into law during this biennium.
•  A Shumlin administration proposal to institute a payroll tax of 0.7 percent to raise revenues to help shore up the current gap between the cost of medical procedures and what the federal Medicaid program will pay for those procedures. Medicaid currently reimburses physicians and hospitals about 60 percent of the true costs of service. As a result, doctors and hospitals are having to eat the loss or pass that reimbursement shortfall on to patients that have good insurance coverage.
Addison resident Paul Boivin said the proposal would amount to a pay cut for Vermonters and instead urged lawmakers to consider broadening eligibility for existing health care programs like Medicare and Dr. Dynasaur.
“Why are we creating a new layer of bureaucracy when we’ve got it right now?” Boivin asked.
•  Legislation filed by Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, that would allow the Public Service Board to reopen applications for certificates of public good that have been awarded if the projects in question show cost overruns. The impetus for this bill, Jewett acknowledged, is Vermont Gas’s Phase I natural gas pipeline project from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes. The PSB has OK’d that project, but recent estimates from Vermont Gas now place the Phase I costs at around twice as much as originally forecast (see story, Page 1A).
“We have to ask, ‘Is the public benefit still there?’” he said.
•  The proliferation of solar arrays in Addison County, particularly in New Haven. Smith noted the PSB has the power to unilaterally approve or reject solar projects that send electricity to the state’s power grid. The PSB does not have to consider input from the local regional planning commission or community in which the project is located, when making its decision. Smith said there are some bills in the Statehouse now that would require local town plans, local zoning and regional plans to carry more weight in PSB permitting decisions for solar arrays.
“Local authorities need to have a larger voice in the process,” Smith said.
•  Recent proposals to extend power lines through Lake Champlain. Those proposals are in various stages of planning and/or permitting.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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