Months Later, Legislators Still Treading Water On Lake Cleanup

Mar 17, 2015

House lawmakers have spent the first two and a half months of the legislative session working on a $14 million water quality bill. But they still haven’t figured out a way to pay for it.

About 100 water-quality advocates from across Vermont descended on the Statehouse on Tuesday. Their message was simple: find the revenues needed to pay for legislation that advocates say is needed to reduce the flow of pollution into Lake Champlain and other bodies of water. 

Eleven-year-old Anika Eastman, a member of Trout Unlimited since she was 4, tried to lend some urgency to the cause.

“Please help pass this bill, and fully fund it, not only for the fish, but for me, and my generation, so that we can have clean water in Vermont,” Eastman said.

Calais Rep. Janet Ancel says there isn’t a legislator in the building who doesn’t agree with the intent of the legislation.

“But the difficulty has always been how to raise the money … to get money on the ground to do the kinds of things we know we need to do,” Ancel says.

As the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, Ancel is now working to solve the revenue dilemma. Ancel says her committee is committed to finding the money needed to pay for the water-quality initiatives in the legislation – the bill would add 13 new positions to the Agency of Agriculture and Agency of Natural Resources.

But Ancel says the committee has a ways to go before it figures out which revenue source makes the most sense.

Other House committees have considered, and rejected, a dozen proposed revenue mechanisms. Gov. Peter Shumlin favors an annual fee on commercial and industrial operations, combined with a tax on agriculture fertilizer. The House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources preferred an increase in taxes on rooms, meals and liquor. And the House Committee on Agriculture scrubbed the bill of any revenue sources whatsoever, leaving it up to Ancel’s committee to find the money.

In a short speech to a room full of water quality advocates, Shumlin told them to turn up the pressure on lawmakers to find the money.

“As you walk around this Legislature, talking to legislators, encourage them to make some tough decisions, because if we leave here with a toothless bill, we’ll be right back where we were: more blue-green algae, more water that stinks so bad you don’t want to be next to it during the summertime,” Shumlin said.

At the behest of legislators, Shumlin administration has put forth a revised plan that uses a per-parcel fee on every piece of commercial and industrial operation in the state – the previous proposal would have applied only to parcels in the Lake Champlain basin. The proposal, which would assess a minimum fee of $200 and a maximum fee of $800, would affect about 20,000 parcels across the state, and raise about $6 million for the bill.

Commissioner of Environmental Conservation David Mears says the administration hasn't yet taken a position for or against the expanded per-parcel fee concept.

Westminster Rep. David Deen is the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources, which had previously replaced the per-parcel-fee proposal with an increase in the rooms and meals tax.

Deen says his committee had concerns about how the per-parcel fee would be administered, and whether it would raise money in time to fund water-improvement activities next year. He says the latest version of the plan appears to address his concerns.

“If they can make their case on the per-parcel fee to your satisfaction in terms of administration and revenue projections, fine … We are not wed to our funding level, or sources,” Deen told Ancel’s committee. “And if you can do the per-parcel, it’s a better statement of our mantra, which is, ‘everybody’s in.’”

This story was edidted at 2:10 p.m. on 3/18/14