Everyone Wants A Clean Lake, But No One Wants To Pay For It

Feb 25, 2015

Gov. Peter Shumlin and legislative leaders say this is the year to take action to clean up Lake Champlain and other polluted waters. The sense of urgency was heightened last week when the legislature held an unusual joint assembly to hear dramatic testimony from business and environmental advocates about Lake Champlain in crisis.

But while various interests groups publicly proclaim they want to clean up the lake, few want to pay for it.

A report released by the state a few years ago put the price tag for improving the water quality in Lake Champlain at $155 million. By that measure, a bill this year that would raise around $13 million for water quality projects around the state may seem like a baby step.

Still, business and environmental groups have rallied around the cause of cleaning up the lake and other polluted waterways. Tom Torti, president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, told lawmakers last week that Vermont’s brand is defined by its clean environment. A polluted lake hurts the state economically because visitors will chose not to return, he said.

“We know what the problems are, we know what the sources are. Pick one, fund it and fix it,” he said.

A day later, Katie Taylor, a lobbyist for Torti's organization was in a House committee. She delivered a different message.  

"Of course we want clean water for our state, we would just encourage you to look at other funding sources besides raising these three taxes [rooms, meals and liquor]." - Kendal Melvin, Vermont Chamber of Commerce

“So I would love to be able to say we love everything and we're all in agreement, unfortunately that's not where we are right now,” she said.

Taylor made clear the Lake Champlain chamber will fight a tax increase aimed at the tourism industry to pay for water pollution controls.

"In terms of the rooms, meals and liquor tax increases, the chamber can't support those at this time, because of the competitive disadvantage those increases would put the state in comparison to other New England destinations,” she said.

Kendal Melvin of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce also opposed the half-cent rooms and meals tax increase. When one lawmaker asked her to recommend alternatives, she offered nothing.  

"Everybody's for clean water. You know, 'Hey, I love clean water!' But nobody wants to pay. And it costs money to correct the mistakes we have already made." - Rep. David Deen, Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee chairman

“Of course we want clean water for our state, we would just encourage you to look at other funding sources besides raising these three taxes,” she said.

The committee members grew increasingly skeptical. One reminded the business lobbyists of Tom Torti's speech the day before. David Deen is a Westminster Democrat who chairs the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee. He says everyone needs to chip in to improve the state's waters.

“And it's time that we pay some money. And that's the rub; it's always the money. Everybody's for clean water. You know, ‘Hey, I love clean water!’ But nobody wants to pay. And it costs money to correct the mistakes we have already made."

Besides the rooms, meals and alcohol tax, the bill also calls for a hike in the gas tax and a fee increase on fertilizer sales. Those tax proposals also have many opponents in the Statehouse.