DOAG: LEGISLATIVE UPDATE


March 28, 2018

LEGISLATIVE UPDATE

Office of the Commissioner

The Connecticut General Assembly meets each winter and spring.  In odd-numbered years, the legislature is in session from January to June.  During these longer sessions, members formulate a budget for the state and propose legislation on any and every topic that may be of import to the people in their districts or to the State of Connecticut.

In even-numbered years, they meet from February to May, for the purpose of making adjustments to the state’s budget.  During these shorter sessions, members are limited to introducing bills that impact the finances of the state. However, committees can raise bills dealing with any topic.

Legislative proposals affecting the Department of Agriculture (DoAg) generally flow through the legislature’s Environment Committee.  This year, DoAg introduced bills covering a number of issues of importance to the agency, and to agriculture broadly in Connecticut. 

In the 2014 Farm Bill, the U.S. Congress did away with the longstanding Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) and created the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP).  Within ACEP, Congress created a successor program to FRPP called the Agricultural Lands Easement (ALE) Program.  It is through FRPP, and now ALE, that the State of Connecticut accesses millions of dollars in federal funds for conservation projects on which DoAg partners with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to implement. 

In order to continue to access federal funds, a change is required in Connecticut State Statute to recognize the elimination of FRPP and the creation of ALE.  That is what Senate Bill 102, An Act Concerning Minor Revisions to Environmental Protection and Agriculture-Related Statutes, seeks to do.  The bill also allows for any successive programs to ALE to be adopted by reference, which would negate the need for future changes to that statute to access federal funding.

DoAg also introduced Senate Bill 106, An Act Concerning the Sale of “Connecticut Grown” Products.  In recent years, the legislature has required farmers who are selling products at certified farmers’ markets and representing their products as Connecticut Grown list name and address of the farm where the product was grown. 

The intention behind this law had been to ensure that Connecticut producers who bring in product from out of state do not label such product as Connecticut Grown, thereby protecting consumers, ensuring truth in advertising, and leveling the playing field for Connecticut producers.  Senate Bill 106 extends that same requirement to anyone selling to school districts.  It should be reasonable to expect that if someone claims a product is produced in Connecticut, and they are seeking to sell that product to a school district that intends to support locally grown product, the seller should be able to identify the farm name and address where the product was produced. 

In Connecticut, DoAg serves as the enforcement agent for the Food and Drug Administration’s National Shellfish Sanitation Program’s Model Ordinance (NSSP MO).  To be allowed to ship oysters out of state, the state needs to comply with the NSSP MO, including having established relay monitoring protocols.  In 2017, DoAg implemented vessel monitoring systems technology, very similar to GPS units.  These units allow DoAg to ensure compliance with the NSSP MO without the excessive cost of adding substantially more staff, and also allows for DoAg to continue supporting the growing shellfish industry in Connecticut. 

There are several proposed bills that may inhibit compliance with DoAg’s work to meet the requirements of the NSSP MO, thereby jeopardizing compliance with federal regulations necessary to ship oysters out of state.  Senate Bill 344, An Act Concerning Regulations for Electronic Surveillance Devices Required by the Department of Agriculture would place an unfunded mandate on DoAg, and require the formulation of duplicative contract language already established in existing license agreements. 

Likewise, House Bill 5359, An Act Concerning Shellfish Leases, also puts a redundant burden on DoAg.  This bill does contain language that would allow for the creation of an aquaculture education program in New Haven, which DoAg supports.  However, most of the language included in Senate Bill 344 and House Bill 5359 are already allowable under state law, and the bills serve as solutions in search of problems.  DoAg is working to limit the potential impact of these bills to the industry by continuing to have meaningful conversations that will make these bills better.

There has been much discussion in recent years concerning conflicting interests between providing farmers access to the best farmland soils, the state, and renewable energy projects.  Just two weeks ago, the Energy and Technology Committee heard House Bill 5349, An Act Requiring the Study of Permitting of Farm-Based Anaerobic Digesters.  The bill seeks to find ways to streamline the necessary permitting processes required to install these renewable energy generators.  This concept would represent a positive step towards on-farm renewable energy that operates in a way that is beneficial to working farms. 

Also this session, the debate about siting of solar developments on prime farmland continues to be a focal point.  At a recent Working Lands Alliance meeting, Governor Malloy expressed an appreciation for the positions on both sides of the issue and reiterated his support for a balanced solution between the two interests. 

The legislature’s Environment Committee passed Senate Bill 350, An Act Requiring the Posting of a Decommissioning Bond for Certain Solar Projects.  The bill is intended to provide some surety to property owners who lease farmland to solar developers, requiring that resources are available to restore the land to its prior condition when/if the solar projects are ever decommissioned.   

In 2017, the legislature passed Public Act 17-218, which gave DoAg the opportunity to weigh in on applications to the Connecticut Siting Council for solar developments with a capacity of two or more megawatts that have a material impact on prime farmland. Public Act 17-218 also gave the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection the opportunity to weigh in on solar projects that have a material impact on core forest.

There is considerable pushback from industry stakeholders to change the word “material” to “permanent,” thereby essentially eliminating the opportunity for the two departments to weigh in on projects that could consume prime farmland and core forests.  This appears contrary to the balance that Governor Malloy is seeking, and DoAg will continue to work to meet his expectations for the protection of prime farmland soils and providing farmers with access to those soils.

The Community Investment Act (CIA) has been a tool dedicated to the preservation of open space, historic preservation, affordable housing, dairy sustainability, and programming within DoAg.  In part because of the dedicated nature of these funds, there are legislative proposals still under consideration that would have an impact on the CIA.  Senate Bill 338, An Act Concerning the Use of Community Investment Account Funds for Combatting Invasive Species, seeks to redirect some of the open space funding under the existing CIA to lake authorities and associations with public access to combat invasive species. 

In the budget adopted by the legislature late last year, $5 million was swept from the CIA and deposited into the General Fund.  Recognizing the critical role that CIA funding has on programs within DoAg, legislators have introduced bills to cancel the sweep.  House Bill 5164, An Act Concerning Funding for the Community Investment Account, would be particularly beneficial to DoAg because of the programs funded by CIA.  Much of DoAg’s farmland preservation work, including staffing, is paid for through this fund. 

Also of critical importance is the Agriculture Sustainability Program, which provides assistance to dairy farmers during times of economic distress.  Currently, the price per hundredweight (Cwt) is dangerously low, at a time and in a region where the cost to produce milk is extremely high.  With milk prices in the $17 Cwt range and cost of production at or above $30 Cwt, the Agricultural Sustainability Program is critically needed. 

Last year, DoAg was proud to champion a bill that created a designation for Connecticut Craft Beer, as well as a permitting process for farm breweries.  The goal was to provide for expanded sales of craft beer made with Connecticut ingredients.  This year, there are legislative proposals sponsored by individual legislators that would allow for expansion of sales opportunities for farm wineries as well.  In last year’s bill, farm breweries received the ability to sell wine. 

Now, farm wineries are asking for the ability to sell beer.  The idea creates a natural synergy between farm breweries and farm wineries, all with the goal of expanding market access for Connecticut Grown products.  Six different wineries submitted testimony on Senate Bill 307, An Act Concerning Alcoholic Liquor, encouraging members to consider their argument for market expansion in the final bill before the committee.  

Legalization of marijuana (in some form) and the cultivation of industrial hemp are also topics that have received some attention this session.  Under the 2014 Farm Bill, state departments of agriculture or land grant universities were empowered to create pilot programs pertaining to industrial hemp.  According to federal law, cannabis remains a controlled substance, and the federal government makes no distinction between marijuana and hemp—it is all cannabis as far as federal law is concerned.  DoAg is supportive of a pilot program for industrial hemp, but currently lacks the resources required to stand up such a program.  

One step necessary to move forward is the required formulation of regulations pertaining to hemp, a step that Senate Bill 487, An Act Concerning the Legalization, Taxation and Regulation of the Retail Sale and Recreational Use of Marijuana and Concerning the Production and Regulation of Hemp, seeks to take.  This bill, still under consideration in the Judiciary Committee, would acknowledge that hemp would be considered an agricultural product, establishes very specific conditions as to where and how hemp could be cultivated, and segregates the cultivation of industrial hemp and palliative or recreational marijuana.  DoAg does not have a position on legalization of marijuana, but does believe that hemp should be considered an agricultural product.

The short legislative session of odd-numbered years brings with it ample amounts of work, but in less time than the longer session.  Included above are only a handful of bills and issues that have been discussed in the General Assembly so far.  In the next 50 days or so, many of these and other issues will be discussed, debated, defeated, and may even come back again before the session adjourns.  One sure thing is that there will be robust discussion about issues of importance to agriculture, Connecticut farm families, and our great state.