House Passes Water Quality Bill, But Concerns Continue

May 13, 2015

A bill lawmakers say will reduce pollution in Lake Champlain and other Vermont waterways is on its way to the governor’s desk. Supporters call the legislation an overdue attempt to improve water quality. But critics worry the funding source could harm the economy.

A House vote on Thursday morning signaled the end of a months-long debate over this high-profile water bill. Westminster Rep. David Deen said the $10 million piece of legislation would bankroll the initiatives needed to reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing into lakes and rivers.

“The House-passed version provides financial assistance to ag practitioners, municipalities and developers to help them in their efforts to reduce runoff into out waters,” Deen said.

House Minority Leader Don Turner was among the "no" votes to echo through the chamber during a voice vote. Turner said he supports efforts to clean up Lake Champlain, and he said he understands it’ll take money to do it. But Turner said the increase in the property transfer tax that will fund the lion’s share of the bill’s cost is the wrong way to go about raising it.

“It seems contradictory that we’re trying in the economic development bill to help people buy homes, by giving them $5,000 credits, but on the other hand we’re going to tax them additional money when they buy those houses,” Turner said.

"The House-passed version provides financial assistance to ag practitioners, municipalities and developers to help them in their efforts to reduce runoff into out waters." - Rep. David Deen

Senate lawmakers had previously considered a per-parcel fee on every property owner in the state to fund the plan. That proposal drew heavy criticism from legislators and the governor, who said it would function as a property-tax increase on homeowners and businesses already struggling to pay existing rates.

Thetford Rep. Jim Masland, who sits on the House Committee on Ways and Means, said that while the per-parcel fee would hit property owners annually, the property transfer tax kicks in only when people buy or sell land.

“And therefore … it’s not likely to hit the same people routinely,” Masland said. “It’s going to be spread around the state over time, which we thought was quite equitable.”

Shumlin said the funding stream isn’t perfect.

“There’s no such thing as a happy tax increase. We all get that,” Shumlin said. “There’s an argument against any tax increase, and I can make them too.”

"It seems contradictory that we're trying in the economic development bill to help people buy homes ... but on the other hand we're going to tax them additional money when they buy those houses." - House Minority Leader Don Turner

But he said the property transfer tax is among the best of the bad options.

“It’s often paid by folks who are buying second homes. It’s paid by Vermonters when they buy a home, but you don’t do that very often, and I do think the tax is reasonable,” he said. 

The bill raises only a fraction of the more than $150 million it’s estimated to cost to solve the pollution problem in Lake Champlain. But Shumlin said the bill should be enough to satisfy federal regulators who have threatened to impose their own clean-up plan, if state officials don’t come up with one that passes muster with the Environmental Protection Agency.

“This bill is actually going to lead over time to the reduction of blue-green algae that’s making our lakes so un-swimmable, to cleaner water,” Shumlin said.

Water quality advocates offered measured praise for the legislation. Shumlin said he’ll sign the bill when it gets to his desk.