The Scott administration is digging in against a proposal by the House Natural Resource, Fish and Wildlife Committee to raise $31 million to clean up Lake Champlain and other bodies of water in Vermont.
In a 7-2 party-line vote Tuesday, the committee approved a plan to fund the cleanup of Lake Champlain and other waterways with millions in new taxes and fees. State Reps. David Ainsworth, R-South Royalton, and Thomas Terenzini, R-Rutland, voted against the plan.
Rebecca Kelley, communications director for Gov. Phil Scott, said the governor will oppose any new taxes.
“Gov. Scott has been clear that Vermonters and Vermont businesses cannot afford to pay more and that he will not sign a budget or a bill this year that adds new taxes, fees or surcharges. He campaigned on this commitment, and was elected by a strong majority of Vermonters to see it through,” she said in a statement.
The cost of cleaning up Lake Champlain, especially phosphorus pollution, became apparent in January when Vermont Treasurer Beth Pearce announced a state-federal plan that would take 20 years to complete and cost more than $2 billion.
The treasurer’s report took a year to compile after being mandated by Act 64, a water-quality measure enacted in 2015. Farming in the Champlain Valley is blamed for 40 percent of the lake’s phosphorus pollution.
According to the plan approved Tuesday, starting in 2019 the state rooms and meals tax would increase from 9 percent to 10 percent, and the tax on alcohol-based beverages would also increase 1 percent. Vermonters would see a $10 clean water fee on in-state motor vehicle registrations. The the plan maintains a 0.2 percent fee on the property transfer tax.
A keystone for generating funds is a roughly $50 per-parcel fee that would be crafted around the type of land the owner maintains, such as impervious surfaces like parking lots that shed rainwater runoff. Both the committee’s proposal and the treasurer’s report rely on a fee to be paid by property owners.
“Why the legislature would not take that time to explore alternatives and think creatively – and, instead, instinctively turn to increasing taxes and fees on Vermonters, whether this year or two years down the road – is baffling,” Kelley’s statement continued.
State Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, chair of the committee, shot back at the Scott administration, saying the taxes are necessary to keep Vermont clean and safe.
“I can think of no higher barrier to economic development, affordability and economic stability than a lake that turns green or a river that smells funny and kills fish. Our hard working and proud citizens deserve a place that is healthy where they can fish and swim as they will without fear water born illnesses,” Deen told Watchdog.
“Over the 20 years of the cleanup plan, $2.3 billion of economic activity will be added to the Vermont economy, and at the end we have clean water we can all enjoy,” he said.
So far, Pearce’s proposal provides the only serious framework to move ahead with the Lake Champlain cleanup. The governor’s fiscal year 2018 Capital and Transportation budgets already include $50 million for the treasurer’s two-year interim plan.
John McClaughry, vice president of the free-markets think tank the Ethan Allen Institute, sees Pearce’s report plan as a tax monolith in which all Vermonters must bear the burden to help one part of the state.
“A program for reducing phosphorus pollution in the lake has become an all-inclusive environmental improvement program with a new taxpayer funding source,” he said.
“Treasurer Pearce favors a per-parcel fee on land throughout the state because we all must go all in to preserve the recreational and esthetic qualities of mainly St. Albans and Missisquoi bays.”
Kelley said the governor’s approach gives the Legislature time “to fully review financial tools and existing revenue sources to fund clean water efforts.” She added that “continuing to make Vermont less affordable is the wrong approach.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated to reflect that the revenue raised would be $31 million, not $30 million as originally reported.
Lou Varricchio is the bureau chief for Vermont Watchdog. You can contact him at [email protected]