Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed a pair of bills May 23 that would have prevented him from asking for political donations from companies seeking loans or grants from a state economic development fund.
The bills passed with unanimous support from both chambers of the General Assembly. H.B.1212 was co-patroned by Delegates Jim LeMunyon (R-Chantilly) and Scott Surovell (D-Mt. Vernon). S.B. 650 was co-patroned by 24 Senators, including Democrats Dick Saslaw (R-Fairfax), Dave Marsden (D-Fairfax) and John Edwards (D-Roanoke). They would have limited donations from companies seeking money from the Governor's Development Opportunity Fund, a $35 million pot that can be used to help attract businesses to Virginia.
McAuliffe's veto came after he unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to include the same fundraising restrictions on state lawmakers. In his veto statement, the governor said that because the General Assembly controls funding for the Opportunity Fund, "the provisions and protections for ethical standards associated with these awards also apply to legislators."
The vetoes from the Democratic governor drew swift condemnation from several Republican lawmakers.
House Speaker William J. Howell said Virginia's elected officials should be focused on "working hard to restore the public's trust."
Both McAuliffe and the General Assembly enacted measures earlier this year designed to tighten some of the rules governing gifts elected officials can accept. The moves came after a federal corruption investigation and subsequent indictment of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.
"This legislation was a key part of the General Assembly's efforts to strengthen and improve Virginia's ethics, transparency and disclosure laws," Howell said.
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy replied that the governor had enacted a more stringent gift ban for himself, his family and his staff than the General Assembly had passed for itself. He said Howell's "professed concern for transparency and accountability" was unconvincing.
USDA Makes Major Announcements on Forest Health
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made two major announcements on May 20, 2014 regarding the streamlining of the Farm Bill and overall forest health. The first major component of the policy introduced new designations for Insect and Disease Treatment Areas. This proposal will have a wide-ranging impact as over 94 national forests in 35 states will receive treatment for insect or disease epidemics.
The Forest Service will implement this plan as part of the Farm Bill’s National Forest Insect and Disease Treatment Act. Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), a champion of the Act, applauded the strategy and the Forest Service’s work to “reduce the risk of wildfires and the threats they pose to our communities and natural resources.” Forest Chief Tom Tidwell celebrated the new authority as another valuable tool the Forest Service can utilize in combating destructive wildfires. In order to cover the over 45 million designated acres, the Forest Service will develop collaborative partnerships with diverse stakeholders to ensure the pace and scale of the program can expand while efficiently protecting forests.
The second major component of his announcement revolved around augmenting the Forest Service’s air tanker fleet for the upcoming wildfire season. The U.S. Forest Service recently acted to procure one-year tanker contracts to grow its current fleet of aircraft. The U.S. Forest Service and private contractors will now work to increase readiness with more next-generation air tankers. Currently, the Forest Service retains a combination of older aircraft as well as next-generation air tankers. While this is a major step towards increasing fire safety, some in Congress are urging further recommendations to increase fleet readiness from the Government Accountability Office.
USDA Announces Support for Renewable Biomass Energy
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced support for agriculture producers and energy facilities working to turn renewable biomass materials into clean energy. The support comes through the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), which was reauthorized by the 2014 Farm Bill and will resume this summer. The program is intended in part to support harvesting and transporting of forest residue to energy facilities.
The Farm Bill authorizes $25 million annually for BCAP, requiring between 10 and 50 percent of the total funding to be used for harvest and transportation of biomass residues. Traditional food and feed crops are ineligible for assistance. The 2014 Farm Bill also enacted several modifications for BCAP, including higher incentives for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and narrower biomass qualifications for matching payments, among other changes.
“This initiative helps farmers and ranchers manage the financial risk of growing and harvesting energy biomass at commercial scale,” said Farm Service Agency Administrator, Juan M. Garcia. “Investing in agricultural and forestry producers who cultivate energy biomass and supporting next-generation biofuels facilities make America more energy independent, help combat climate change and create jobs in rural America.”
BCAP employs three types of biomass assistance. For growing new biomass, BCAP provides financial assistance with 50 percent of the cost of establishing a perennial crop. To maintain the crop as it matures until harvest, BCAP provides an annual payment for up to five years for herbaceous crops, or up to 15 years for woody crops. To collect existing agriculture or forest residues that are not economically retrievable, BCAP provides matching payments for mitigating the cost of harvesting and transporting the materials to the end-use facility.
“For forest residues, this year’s matching payments are targeted for energy generation while reducing fire, insect and disease threats on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands,” said Garcia. “Agriculture residues for energy are also eligible for matching payments.”
“The potential to achieve transformational progress on biomass energy in rural America and generate tremendous economic opportunities is very promising,” added Garcia. “Energy crops occupy the space between production and conservation, providing opportunities for marginal land, crop diversity and more energy feedstock choices.
The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), which administers BCAP, will coordinate BCAP enrollments. Information on funding availability will be published in an upcoming Federal Register notice. For more information on BCAP and other FSA programs, visit a local FSA office or go online to www.fsa.usda.gov
Chesapeake Bay Designated Critical Conservation Area
The Chesapeake Bay watershed is among eight areas in the nation being designated critical conservation areas. U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Timothy M. Kaine said Tuesday that designation ensures federal funding to help implement a variety of conservation projects.
With the designation, the bay is eligible to receive a portion of more than $100 million in annual funding. It would be used to help implement a variety of conservation projects and increase the sustainability of regional water, soil, wildlife and natural resources.
The bay's designation as a critical conservation area comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Chesapeake Bay is the world's largest estuary, with a watershed encompassing 64,000 square miles.
Northern Long Eared Bat Update
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed that the Northern Long Eared Bat be added to the list of endangered species and drafted interim planning guidance that could potentially shut down timber operations in huge swaths of the U.S from April to October. Although it's called "Northern" the bat resides in 39 states, including western Virginia, so a listing and enforcement of these logging restrictions would impact forest fiber production over much of the country and the state.
Directors of the Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources have sent a joint letter protesting the fact that the USFWS drafted the planning guidance without consulting state or regional offices. Congressional delegation letters are also being sent, with the Oklahoma and Ohio delegations weighing in to oppose the listing and other delegations lining up to do the same. A Congressional briefing for Capitol Hill staff and will occur in the House Natural Resources Committee hearing room on June 12.