VT Digger: Lawmakers Look to Aid Rural Industries and Economies

May. 9, 2017

Legislators appear poised to adopt a bill that proponents say will give much-needed economic stimulus to Vermont’s rural economies.

Titled S.34, the wide-ranging bill seeks to support Vermont’s forestry, agriculture and renewable energy industries through a variety of measures.

Versions of the bill passed both the House and Senate, and a conference committee of members from both chambers has formed to work out the details.

The bill creates an entity within the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to work with municipalities, regional development corporations and businesses to boost economies in rural parts of the state.

The new entity would be called the Rural Economic Development Initiative, and it would aid in securing grants, tax credits and other forms of funding.

In particular, REDI would prioritize businesses that deal in milk, the outdoor industry, forestry, local foods, phosphorus removal technology and composting.

The bill also takes on what representatives of the state’s forestry industry have said is a significant drag on the dwindling sector: workers’ compensation.

Under the bill, state officials would be directed to find a way to reduce the cost of workers’ compensation for certain dangerous jobs, like logging and roofing.

Leaders in the forestry industry say workers’ comp is especially burdensome for high-risk occupations like theirs and that foresters in Vermont pay more for workers’ comp than their counterparts in other New England states.

“Workers’ compensation rates for logging and log haulers is astronomically high,” said Michael Snyder, commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. “It’s prohibitively expensive.”

“This is something worth studying,” Snyder said. “We’re really hopeful something can be done to bring these costs of doing business back to something more manageable for this important but struggling part of Vermont’s economy.”

The forestry industry in Vermont has suffered a number of recent and significant setbacks, including the closure of several large mills in the area that previously provided a market for low-quality wood.

S.34 contains a number of other provisions.

It would, for instance, direct that the state figure out how to reduce or eliminate air pollution fees for emissions from anaerobic digesters. Anaerobic digesters turn food, manure and other organic waste into methane, which is usually converted with a few added ingredients into “renewable” natural gas. The digesters have rapidly grown in popularity over the past decade.

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