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Vermont Senate approves working landscape bill


BENNINGTON -- The Vermont Senate gave final approval Monday to a bill that proponents say will enhance the state’s farming and forest industries.

The Working Lands Enterprise Investment bill, which aims to boost agriculture and small businesses and preserve Vermont’s traditional rural economy, received unanimous support in the Senate on Friday. It received final passage on Monday afternoon on a voice vote; however, the level of funding remains to be decided.

The bill previously secured overwhelming support in the House, but the two chambers included different funding levels in their respective versions.

The legislation creates the Working Lands Enterprise Fund as well as the Working Lands Enterprise Board, which will oversee the fund. Proponents say the fund would stimulate economic development in the state’s agriculture and forest products sectors by providing grants to start-up companies.

The Vermont Council on Rural Development has been working with the Vermont Land Trust, Vermont Natural Resources Council and others to push the legislation. VCRD Executive Director Paul Costello said earlier this year he was hoping lawmakers would commit about $3 million in funding for the first year, which would eventually rise to about $15 million annually in the future.

Lawmakers have decided they will sign onto the idea, but are putting up less money than proposed.

The House approved $2 million in its version of the bill. The Senate, however, is expected to set aside about $500,000 to fund the program. While the Senate approved the structure of the fund and the board on Monday, the question of funding it is still under consideration by the Senate Appropriations Committee and will be included in the budget bill.

The Senate version will head back to the House where it must decide to accept the lower funding or seek a conference committee to hash out the differences.

Thomas Cheney, an aide to Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith, said he expects the House to seek more funding than the Senate provided in its version.

"The House will certainly be arguing the House position and trying to find as much funding as possible," Cheney said. "They really value the program and it did get a strong, tri-partisan vote in the House."

Costello commended the Senate for its work, noting that some details remain.

"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," he said.

Other elements initially proposed in the legislation did not survive, including the a working lands designation that would have allowed working lands enterprise areas eligible for capital gains breaks to help farmers selling equipment or livestock. A marketing campaign -- and its funding -- were also nixed.

NEAL P. GOSWAMI, Staff Writer, Bennington Banner,