Lawmakers Skeptical About Governor's New Plan To Fund Lake Cleanup

Oct 18, 2017

Vermont’s secretary of natural resources is out with a new plan to fund costly water quality improvements, but legislators have some concerns about where she wants the money to come from.

The blue-green algae blooms that shut down beaches on Lake Champlain this summer are a symptom of severe water quality issues across Vermont, and policymakers say the state will have to spend an additional $1 billion over the next 20 years to address the problem.

During the last legislative session, lawmakers instructed a “working group” to come up with a long-term funding plan for the water quality expenditures. That group, led by Secretary of Natural Resources Julie Moore, issued a draft report Tuesday that recommends reallocating existing funds to pay for clean water efforts through at least 2024.

Specifically, Moore says Vermont should earmark $22 million annually from the capital bill for clean water projects.

Moore says the solution isn’t ideal, since it pulls money from a “limited pool of dollars” that already has “a number of demands placed on it.”

“And we know we’re competing with those needs, and very aware of that,” Moore says. “It’s always a conversation about tradeoffs, and certainly we’ve been having those conversations, and they need to continue within the various agencies of state government.”

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe says he’s happy to see the administration of Gov. Phil Scott acknowledge the need for increased water quality funding.

"We have mental health facility needs that would likely come from the capital bill ... And that's the thing we're going to have to really understand - how we are not sacrificing the well-being of people with mental health issues, and the public safety issues related to that in the communities?" — Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe

Earlier this year, lawmakers approved a budget that increased clean water investments by 70 percent over previous levels; the report issued Tuesday would maintain those levels through fiscal year 2024.

The concern, Ashe says, is that the funding plan siphons money away from an existing capital program that already faces significant pressures.

“We have mental health facility needs that would likely come from the capital bill. We have Woodside, the detention facility for youth, which is in great need of either replacement or repair. We have corrections facilities that are in need or replacement or rehabilitation,” Ashe says.

This year’s capital bill includes about $73 million for state construction projects. But that number is expected to go down in future years, as a result of diminished borrowing capacity. Setting aside $22 million for water quality projects, according to Ashe, could force the state to shortchange other obligations.

“And that’s the thing we’re going to have to really understand - how we are not sacrificing the well-being of people with mental health issues, and the public safety issues related to that in the communities?” Ashe says.

Rep. Alice Emmons, the chairwoman of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, says she too worries that Moore’s proposal could force the state to defer action on key state construction projects. She has another concern as well: The capital bill is funded through bonding, which means the state is borrowing the money to fund projects now, then paying off the debt over time.

“And I’m sort of using the analogy, in your home budget, if you have a major expense coming up either in your home or college expense or medical expense … do you put that on your credit card?” Emmons says.

Rebekah Weber, the Lake Champlain Lakekeeper at the Conservation Law Foundation, says the Legislature specifically asked the working group to come up with a “long-term funding methods” to pay for water quality costs.

“We were hoping to see that come in that report, and I would say the agency fell short in that charge,” Weber says.

Weber says capital bill money comes with restrictions, in terms of how the money can be disbursed. And she says orchestrating the multitude of projects needed to reduce water pollution requires a more reliable long-term revenue stream than the one recommended in the working group’s report.

“And I want to emphasize long-term, because it was meant to be a funding stream that we could really plan on and plan around, because many of the projects that need to be implemented on the ground, they require a certain amount of planning to take place,” Weber says.

Earlier this year, State Treasurer Beth Pearce recommended a per-parcel fee on every landowner in Vermont to fund the water quality initiative. Moore says the working group studied the proposal, but that “we came away with as a many questions as answers.”

Moore says administering a per-parcel fee, or assessing a fee based on the amount of impervious surface on a property, would be incredibly complex. And she says there aren’t any obvious ways to overcome those hurdles.

She says it’s possible the concept might be feasible, but that the state will likely need some outside help to chart a path forward. She says the state might enlist outside expertise as early as this spring to analyze the options.

And Moore says the administration will continue its efforts to identify a long-term revenue source for a water quality initiative that will likely last decades.