After 3 Years, Funding Plan To Improve Vermont's Water Quality Remains Elusive
From the governor on down, just about every elected official in Montpelier says Vermont needs more money for water quality projects. And that’s where the agreement ends.
The issue of how to pay for water funding has turned into one of the most intractable policy debates of the 2018 legislative session.
While it’s been almost three years since Vermont passed its own version of the federal Clean Water Act, Jon Groveman with the Vermont Natural Resources Council says there remains a big problem.
“Three years down the road, we’re no further along in terms of how to raise the money,” Groveman says.
The 2015 legislation was a call to arms against the ecological fiascos playing out in some of the state’s most treasured bodies of water, like Lake Champlain and Lake Carmi.
The landmark law established aggressive new water quality standards; however, it was silent on how to raise the billion or so dollars needed to achieve them.
Last month, the Vermont Senate tried to move the ball forward, by giving unanimous approval to what would be the third water quality funding study in the last three years. The bill would bring together some of the most powerful members of the Vermont Legislature and give them until November to come up with a final funding plan.
Groveman says he appreciates the spirit of the legislation.
“But what it doesn’t do is it doesn’t identify the way we’re gonna raise the money,” Groveman says.
"Three years down the road, we're no further along in terms of how to raise the money." — Jon Groveman, Vermont Natural Resources Council
Addison County Sen. Chris Bray, who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, says he’s “sympathetic” to Groveman’s concerns.
“I'm one of those advocates who has said, ‘We need to make sure we commit to long-term funding for the clean water in the state of Vermont,’” Bray says.
At the beginning of the session, Bray was as bullish as Groveman on the need to get a funding plan in place before the end of the 2018 session. However, Bray says he’s since developed a deeper understanding of the issue.
“What we don’t need yet is more money,” Bray says. “We need more money 18 months from now.”
Bray says lawmakers have already secured more than $25 million for water quality projects for fiscal year 2019. And he says that’ll keep efforts funded through the middle of next year.
“We’ve never raised money 18 months ahead of its need. You know, it’s just not the way budgets work around here,” Bray says.
Bray says the Senate bill doesn’t merely create a new study. He says it directs the members of the Clean Water Planning, Funding and Implementation Committee to have a draft funding bill ready for action when lawmakers return in January 2019.
The legislation creates a parallel committee — made up of four members of the public and five cabinet-level executive branch appointees — that would also be charged with developing a funding plan, and this committee would decide how to spend the clean water money that is raised.
"What we don't need yet is more money. We need more money 18 months from now." — Addison County Sen. Chris Bray
Not all lawmakers, however, have given up on getting a funding plan in place this session. Westminster Rep. David Deen says the Senate bill "was less than we had hoped that the Senate would send us relative to moving into a real implementation phase, of being able to raise and disperse money, put it on the ground to do projects."
So Deen, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, says the House will likely adopt a more aggressive approach. He says his committee will use the Senate bill as a starting point.
“And move it closer to reality, of actually raising funds and putting them on the ground to address water quality problems,” Deen says.
So what’s that funding plan going to look like?
“Well, that we don’t know yet. That we don’t know yet,” Deen says.
With only a few weeks left until lawmakers adjourn, Deen’s committee will have to develop that plan in short order.
Aside from the thorny question of how to raise the revenue, Deen says there’s another major hurdle lawmakers need to overcome.
“How are we going to deal with this brick wall?” Deen says.
That brick wall Deen is referring to is Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who says he’d veto even the Senate’s study committee, let alone legislation that actually raises new taxes or fees for water projects.
"I don't think the knee-jerk reaction should just necessarily be to just add another fee. Maybe there's a way to reduce spending in other areas." — Gov. Phil Scott
Scott says Vermont has plenty of time to come up with a funding plan. The governor says he’s committed to raising the $25 million to $30 million a year Vermont will need over the next 20 years to pay for water quality improvements.
“But I don’t think the knee-jerk reaction should just necessarily be to just add another fee. Maybe there’s a way to reduce spending in other areas,” Scott says.
Scott says as of now, he thinks organic growth in the underlying economy may yield enough growth in state revenues to pay for water funding without raising any new money.
Groveman says he's mystified by the governor’s approach.
“It’s unbelievably disappointing. I don’t understand it. I really don’t. ... It’s not conservative to keep putting off an obligation that we have,” Groveman says.
In the House, Deen says his committee could unveil a water funding plan as soon as this week.
Disclosure: Vermont Natural Resources Council is a VPR underwriter.