Showdown Looming Between Scott, Water Advocates Over Funding For Lake Cleanup

Dec 7, 2016

Next month, Vermont Treasurer Beth Pearce will unveil a much-anticipated legislative report that will tell lawmakers how to raise the $1.3 billion needed to clean up Lake Champlain and other polluted waterways. And Governor-elect Phil Scott may soon find himself at odds with Democrats — and environmental advocates — over how to come up with the money.

In early September, in a four-seat Cessna 182 amphibian airplane piloted by a volunteer, Rebekah Weber took a reporter on a bird’s-eye tour of Lake Champlain.

From 1,000 feet in the air, under a clear blue sky, the lake looks brilliant. But Weber, the Lake Champlain lakekeeper at the Conservation Law Foundation, says appearances can be deceiving.

“One of the challenges is that we do a flight like this and the lake looks beautiful, and it’s hard to tell that there’s a problem,” Weber says.

But there is a problem. A big one. And that’s not just according to water-quality advocates like Weber, but to the state and federal regulators who have spent the last two years coming up with a plan to reduce the flow of phosphorus and other pollutants into the state’s premier waterway.

That plan is known as the TMDL – short for total maximum daily load. And it lays out a roadmap of regulatory actions and infrastructure improvements that will mitigate the effects of land development, agriculture and other activities contributing to the problem.

An aerial view of the Missiquoi River in Swanton from September 2016. Next month, a budget for a plan to reduce the flow of phosphorus and other pollutants into the state's premier waterway is expected.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR feil

“We have a TMDL now, and we have a TMDL implementation plan. But we don’t have a number, and we don’t have a budget, so how do we reasonably know we will be able to go forward?” Weber says.

That budget, and the plan to raise the money needed to pay for it, will finally arrive in the Legislature next month.

The Agency of Natural Resources estimates the state will need to come up with $1.3 billion over the next 20 years to deal with water-quality issues in Vermont.

In 2015, lawmakers told State Treasurer Beth Pearce to put together a plan for how to fund it.

Governor-elect Phil Scott in his transitional office in Montpelier. Scott says he's prepared to adhere to his campaign pledge to reject any new tax increases, for now.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

With Scott, a Republican, about to take over the executive branch, however, the political dynamic in Montpelier is about to shift. And the man who vowed to reject any new tax increases during his campaign says he’s prepared to adhere to that pledge, for now.

“I do believe that we’re taxed to capacity at this point,” Scott says. “We need to grow the economy in order to grow revenue.”

At last count, the coalition overseeing the development of the treasurer’s water quality financing plan was considering nearly 60 revenue options. They include an excise tax on bottled water, a surtax on booze, a $1-per-night fee on hotel stays and even a sales tax on pet care.

Scott though says he won’t abide passage of any new revenue increases in 2017. And he says he hopes Vermont won’t need any.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has held Vermont’s feet to the regulatory fire, and is in part responsible for the urgency behind the cleanup effort. Under a President Donald Trump, who has called the EPA a “disgrace,” Scott says maybe federal regulators will ease up on Vermont.

To be clear, Scott says, Vermont needs to mount a concerted pollution-reduction effort.

“But is there going to be the possibility of giving us just a little more time to do so?” Scott says. “And that would have a significant effect on how we approach this.”

Westminster Rep. David Deen is the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources. Deen says it might sound “enticing” to postpone the imposition of new revenue bills for lake cleanup.

“But I would argue without fear of contradiction that the person who has lost value in their property along the shores of Lake Champlain is not prepared to wait,” Deen says.

An aerial view of Colchester point, the Winooski River and Malletts Bay taken in September. Westminster Rep. David Deen says owners of lakefront property would likely be among those unwilling to postpone the imposition of new revenue bills for lake cleanup.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

Deen says groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation, which have used the courts to force government to adopt a more aggressive pollution reduction effort, aren’t prepared to wait either. And he says the state could quickly find itself in hot legal waters if it fails to meet its obligations under the TMDL and under the state and federal versions of the Clean Water Act.

Deen’s House committee will get first crack at putting the treasurer’s financing report into bill form next session. He says he plans to have a revenue-generating bill passed before the end of the year that would take effect no later than July 1, 2018.

“We don’t want to come up to the 2018 session with everybody running around trying to get things in place,” Deen says.

"There are three branches to government, and [Scott] is going to do what he's going to have to do. But the Legislature is going to do its job. I know that." — Rep. David Deen, Westminster

And Deen says Scott’s philosophy on new revenues isn’t going to dissuade lawmakers from their work.

“There are three branches to government, and he’s going to do what he’s going to have to do,” Deen says. “But the Legislature is going to do its job. I know that.”

Weber says the longer the state delays cleanup funding, the more severe — and costly — Vermont’s water problems will become.

“The take-home message is that we need to have a stable, long-term revenue source that’s going to be implemented in the next year,” Weber says.

Weber and others will find out in a few months whether Scott and the Democratically-controlled Legislature will deliver one.