By JOHN FLOWERS
WEYBRIDGE — Vermont can anticipate around $125 million in federal stimulus money for transportation projects, and the state will need to commit $44 million of that money within 120 days of receiving its cut, local lawmakers reported on Monday.
That news, along with some more sobering facts about the reeling Vermont dairy industry, dominated discussion at a legislative breakfast held at the Weybridge Congregational Church.
Vermont is expected to get a total of around $1 billion in federal stimulus aid, with some of that earmarked for Medicaid reimbursement, public education and initiatives aimed at creating jobs, including in the renewable energy industries. But state and town officials are anxiously awaiting more details on how the federal, two-year windfall will help with some longstanding transportation projects, of which there are no shortage. Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, noted municipalities throughout the state have submitted a combined total of $1 billion in local requests for the $125 million available for highway, bridge, rail and public transit projects.
“The fog is starting to clear just a little bit,” Lanpher, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said of the confusion surrounding the stimulus funding.
Lanpher said she and her colleagues were scheduled this week to begin reviewing eligible projects for the $44 million in federal money that must be committed within 120 days and spent on projects that “maximize job creation and economic benefit.”
“If we do not obligate the money, we will lose the balance of that stimulus,” Lanpher said.
The Vermont Agency of Transportation on Tuesday released a list of 30 projects, totaling $85 million, that could benefit from a quick infusion of stimulus money. Those projects include the Bennington Bypass and rehab of the Richmond Bridge.
There is also a “buy American” restriction on the stimulus money, Lanpher noted, as well as a requirement that benefiting transportation projects be completed within three years. The funds do not require any kind of state match, but they cannot be used as a substitute for current state-funded projects, according to Lanpher.
Some lawmakers said they hope state and federal government is not sending mixed economic signals by talking about cuts and aid in almost the same sentence.
“I’m trying to make sense of two very different things going on with money in the Statehouse,” said Rep. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven. “We’ve already cut roughly $80 million from the budget and we’re looking at cutting potentially another $60 million to balance this year’s budget. We are seeing cuts I haven’t seen in my lifetime. At the same time, we are looking at having more (stimulus) money come to Vermont than perhaps any of us will ever see in our lifetime again.”
Bray said Vermonters should look at the stimulus aid as “investment money,” and not as funds to plug into the state’s budget shortfall.
“There is a lot of need out there; what is going to be important for us to do is use the money wisely,” Lanpher said.
While talk swirls around how the massive federal aid package will help roads, bridges, health care, schools and renewable energy, lawmakers on Monday lamented the fact that one very important, economically strapped group is not getting enough help — farmers.
Bray, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said that plummeting milk prices and increasing production costs are expected to result in the loss of $135 million in personal wealth to farmers this year.
“Roughly 85 percent of the state’s agricultural income comes from conventional dairying, so it leaves us very vulnerable in swings in market prices,” Bray said, though he said organic milk production is making inroads in the state.
“The challenge is to make the transition to a more diversified form on agriculture … that gives us a more stable blend of agricultural products that’s healthier for the landscape, healthier for the people and provides a more stable income,” Bray said.
Andy Dykstra and his family have operated a 200-head dairy farm in New Haven for many years. Dykstra, also a director of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, said this latest financial crisis in the Vermont dairy industry is the worst he has ever seen.
“We did very poorly with the stimulus package on the federal side, believe me,” Dykstra said, adding he believes more farmers, of all ages, will soon be financial unable to continue their operations.
“Older farmers are saying, ‘To heck with it, I’m not going to go through this again,’” Dykstra said. “Our young farmers that just got started, who are carrying a heavy mortgage, they are going out because they can’t borrow any more money. Believe me folks, things are bad.”
Other issues discussed at Monday’s breakfast included:
• The future of Vermont Yankee. Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, and a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said lawmakers continue to monitor the size of a decommissioning fund designed to pay for the eventual costs of closing and removing the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. But that fund, recently at $440 million, is now shrinking during the current recession, Nuovo explained.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, said Entergy Nuclear — the owner Vermont Yankee — has yet to quote a price for power the plant could sell to the state when the current pact expires in 2012. Vermont Yankee currently supplies one-third of the state’s electricity.
“I’m not sure what this is about, but I have a tiny suspicion it is something political,” Ayer said about the delay in getting information.
• The country’s dwindling honeybee population and the role that pesticides and other chemicals used in backyards and in industrial agriculture may be playing in that reduction.
The next legislative breakfast, sponsored by Bridport Grange No. 303, will feature Gov. James Douglas and will be held on Monday, March 2, at 7 a.m. at the Middlebury American Legion Hall.