- Luke Eastman
It appears the Vermont legislature will join Gov. Phil Scott in delaying again any decision on how to raise millions in new revenue to pay for Vermont's billion-dollar cleanup of its waterways.
Environmental advocates and federal regulators are looking on with increasing concern. A temporary source of cleanup funds — $13.5 million a year in capital bonding — is scheduled to dry up in mid-2019, and Vermont has already missed a federal deadline to produce a long-term plan.
The issue has become a political hot potato in Montpelier: Neither the governor nor lawmakers have been willing to decide how much money Vermonters will have to fork over in higher taxes or fees.
Scott and key legislative leaders say they don't need a plan this year, since bond money is still available. Advocates counter that action is needed now because of a legal obligation to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and because it will take time to set up a revenue source.
"Nobody seems to be willing to bite the bullet," said House Natural Resources Committee chair David Deen (D-Putney). He supports a Senate bill to create a Clean Water Authority to raise and spend the needed money.
"Give it authority, give it a governance structure and tell it, 'This is what we want you to do: We want you to clean up stormwater in the state of Vermont.' And then turn them loose," Deen said.
A plan to pay for clean-water efforts isn't optional. The EPA has ordered the state to reduce the amount of phosphorus pollution running into Lake Champlain, Lake Carmi, Lake Memphremagog, and the rivers and streams that flow into them.
A 2015 state law imposed new environmental regulations on farms, developers and local governments but didn't provide any lasting financial assistance.
The problem facing lawmakers is that lots more money is required. Including some help from federal coffers, it will cost $115.6 million annually in public and private spending for the next 20 years to meet pollution-reduction goals, Treasurer Beth Pearce reported in 2017. With the temporary bonding, the state has boosted its pollution-prevention spending to $53 million a year, but that's still not enough to meet the state's long-term goals.
Senate Natural Resources Committee chair Chris Bray (D-Addison) said Vermont can't afford to let spending fall off a cliff when bond money dries up.
"It's even worse than business as usual. It's saying, 'We're going to do less than we're doing right now,'" Bray said. "And given our water-quality problems, that's not acceptable to Vermonters."
Pollution-prevention money helps pay for treating stormwater runoff from parking lots, planting buffer strips to reduce fertilizer runoff from farm fields, and carrying out other projects to keep phosphorus out of waterways. Phosphorus is a nutrient that fuels toxic algae blooms and weed growth in lakes and rivers, sometimes making the water unsuitable for boating and swimming.
EPA officials reminded lawmakers last week that the agency was expecting Vermont to have a long-term revenue plan in place by the end of 2017.
Bray said the EPA's message was clear. "We missed that milestone, and they're looking for the state ... to deliver such a plan quote unquote 'very soon.' So it's urgent, and we know there's a legal obligation," Bray said.
"We [also] know there's a real-world obligation to do this work because we continue to see declining water quality year after year," he added.
Bray said bonding for pollution control was never intended as a lasting solution.
"Some people refer to it as bridge funding, but like any real bridge, for it to be functional you need to come down someplace," he said.
Lawmakers last year directed the Scott administration to deliver a plan to pay for clean water by mid-November. Instead, Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore reported that there are too many questions about how to most effectively spend the money to even consider how to collect it.
"We can't take our foot off the gas, either in terms of implementation or the urgency to have this full solution," Moore said last week. "But the need to act urgently can't be twisted [into] a need to be hasty."
Lawmakers aren't happy with the administration's approach. "I think that's a good way to paralyze the process," Bray said.
Bray keeps a copy of last year's legislative directive to the executive branch in his wallet. He took it out at least twice last week in committee meetings to emphasize one of his main frustrations with the Scott administration.
"They did not meet the letter of the law," Bray said in an interview. "They gave us a report that shared some good information, some ideas, but basically kicked it to the legislature."
With no plan from Scott, Bray's committee faces a choice: delay again by setting up a legislative study committee to develop a revenue proposal for approval next year or put forward some form of the Clean Water Authority despite Scott's opposition to any money-raising bill.
Environmental groups and businesses urged action at a joint Statehouse news conference last month. They called for a new fee to be paid by all landowners on each parcel of real estate they own.
"I'm a Republican," Ernie Pomerleau of Pomerleau Real Estate told reporters. "I understand 'no fees, no taxes.' I don't want to pay a fee. But it's not if we'll be assessed; it's how and when."
The Senate Natural Resources Committee has been considering a per-parcel fee as part of the solution but hasn't drafted any specific proposal.
Scott repeated last week that he's not willing to compromise on his opposition to tax increases.
"I've made it pretty clear: No new taxes," Scott said. "And that would include both this year and for next year as well."
Asked whether his administration has a plan to pay for clean water in the long term, Scott said only, "We'll come up with the money as we go along."
Rebekah Weber, the Lake Champlain lakekeeper for the Conservation Law Foundation, said that approach isn't practical.
"It's important to note that you can't come up with a good idea and then pass it the next day," she said. Any new tax or fee structure would require staffing and administrative work before the state could begin collecting and distributing money.
Despite all these calls for quick action, it appears lawmakers are reluctant to establish a system this year to collect and spend clean-water money.
"We know it's a huge responsibility," House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) said last week. "Coming up with a new funding source is never easy, particularly when there are a lot of competing needs, but we've got to buckle down sometime."
She declined, however, to say whether that "sometime" is now. With the Senate still working on the issue, it's too soon for her to weigh in, she said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) said he's hesitant for a number of reasons. He shares Moore's concerns about how to best spend money on clean water, he said. And lawmakers need cooperation from the administration to make the best decision.
"It is a frustration in the legislature because the best information available — the best tools to determine the appropriate way to finance our water-quality improvements — really reside in the executive branch," he said.
"Almost every funding option ... will include some fees" that Scott opposes, Ashe said. "So the legislature is in this awkward position, because if we go forward without the administration's support, it just leads to a veto. Yet we're still on the hook from the feds to come up with a funding plan."
Even Bray — sponsor of the Clean Water Authority bill — appears reluctant to act this year. He said his hesitation isn't political but practical.
"We don't need to raise more money for [fiscal year] '19," Bray said, "and that's the budget we're building right now. So would we pass a bill that talks about increasing revenues at a moment where we don't really need those new revenues?"
Pearce, who conducted a comprehensive 2017 study of 64 potential revenue sources for Vermont's clean-water work, told Bray's committee last week that policymakers have all the information they need to make a decision.
"What I would not recommend," Pearce said, "is going back and reviewing 60-odd revenues again. We've done that."
At CLF, advocate Weber repeated that there is no reason to wait. "We cannot accept delays," Weber said. "We're not nonchalant about that. Keeping to our time frames is really important."
Weber said her group is "assessing all options" as it follows the action in the legislature. A failure to meet deadlines could open the state up to court challenges by environmental groups. That's happened before. It was a CLF lawsuit that led the EPA in 2016 to ratchet up pressure on Vermont to meet Lake Champlain pollution standards under the Clean Water Act.
Back in the House, Deen said lawmakers should act, despite the governor's opposition.
"[If] he wants to veto it," Deen said, "the blood is on his hands."
The funding debate is not new, he noted.
"I'm tired," he said. "This is the sixth year, fourth go-round of 'Would someone please exert some leadership?' and I'm just tired of it."
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.