As lawmakers look to defer again a politically difficult decision on how to pay for a $1 billion clean water initiative, advocates are ramping up pressure to adopt a financing plan before the 2017 legislative session adjourns.
Two years ago, the Legislature asked State Treasurer Beth Pearce to come up with a long-term funding plan to address Vermont’s water-quality problems. Two months ago, the treasurer delivered that plan to legislators’ desks. But as the session moves past the halfway point, lawmakers appear poised to form yet another work group to study the issue.
On Wednesday morning, about 100 clean water advocates convened in the Pavilion Building in Montpelier. They spent a couple hours in the auditorium, plotting their legislative strategies for the day. And then they embarked on a short but spirited march to the Statehouse.
Their unifying chant - “clean water, invest now” - pretty well summarizes what these activists are looking for. And at a press conference inside the Statehouse, they tried to underscore the urgency.
“Environmental activists are often accused of using hyperbole when we use terms like ‘crisis’ to define an issue or call attention to a certain issue or to make our case,” says Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “If you’ve ever seen an algae bloom in St. Albans Bay or Lake Carmi, you could not deny that we are facing a crisis.”
In 2015, lawmakers passed a state-level Clean Water Act that sets out rigorous new mandates aimed at reducing the phosphorus pollution that fuels those algae blooms.
“The good news is that indications are lawmakers understand the severity of the situation,” Shupe says.
The bad news, advocates say, is that those same lawmakers still haven’t come up with the $1 billion dollars or so in new revenue that will be needed to fund the water-quality initiatives.
Pearce has called for a per-parcel fee on every landowner in the state to pay for the effort. Her recommendation would generate about $25 million a year. Last month, the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife authored a revised proposal that would use an increase in the rooms and meals tax to fund water quality for two years, before segueing to the per-parcel mechanism.
But none of the proposals have gone over well in the tax-writing House Committee on Ways and Means. And on Wednesday, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson explained to advocates the approach lawmakers are now taking.
“It establishes a work group to look at that long-term funding plan,” Johnson says.
Jon Groveman, water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, says the House legislation is “a step.”
“But we don’t think they’ve gone far enough,” Groveman adds. “We’re very concerned that if they kick the can down the road, they’re going to just keep kicking the can down the road, and the short-term funding is not going to be there forever.”
Rebekah Weber, the lakekeeper at Conservation Law Foundation, says it isn’t just water quality advocates that are demanding real action on funding in 2017. A coalition that includes the Vermont Farm Bureau, Vermont Mayors Coalition, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and numerous environmentalist groups sent a letter to lawmakers last week, asking them to pass a per-parcel fee this year. Under their proposal, that fee would go into effect in 2019, when interim water-quality funding sources are scheduled to expire, if lawmakers haven’t come up with an alternative financing plan in the meantime.
“We need to have a backstop,” Weber says. “We’ve had working groups, we’ve had reports before, and so without having a backstop, we’re really not going to be happy this session.”
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe says the federal budget proposal unveiled by President Donald Trump earlier this month has clouded the funding picture. Trump’s proposed cuts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency could cost Vermont millions of dollars in water-quality revenue annually.
“I don’t know that we could come up with a realistic finding plan this year in light of that uncertainty,” Ashe says. “I think we’ll be honestly in a much better position once we see what the federal budget looks like.”
Weber, however, says the state has invested enormous time and energy in calculating the amount of revenue Vermont taxpayers will need to come up with to cover the state’s share of the costs.
“While it’s unhelpful to have uncertainty at the federal level and we’re certainly concerned with the budget cut proposal, it doesn’t really make sense for that to stop the process that’s happening at the state level,” Weber says.
House lawmakers are expected to pass an interim funding plan for water quality this week. It uses $50 million in state bonding capacity to pay for clean water initiatives through the middle of 2019.