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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Environmental Groups Push Lawmakers For A Long Term Clean Water Funding Source

An aerial view of Lake Champlain
Peter Hirschfeld
VPR file
Lawmakers face some tough choices to identify a long term funding source for the state's Clean Water Fund

As the legislative session enters the home stretch, lawmakers still have not figured out how to pay for what most insist is a top priority — cleaning up Lake Champlain and other waterways.

The issue at hand is how to raise between $8 million and $10 million in new revenue for cleanup efforts.

Recently, the Vermont Senate approved a plan to distribute tens of millions of dollars in grants to help clean up the state's lakes and streams.  But the Senate didn't address how to pay for its proposal.

Senate Natural Resources chairman Chris Bray says his panel deliberately did not recommend a specific funding source.

Bray says Democratic leaders want to wait until the end of the session to weigh the needs of the clean water bill against the other budgetary priorities.

"We have a lot of competing interests and so we need to clarify all of them and bring them to the table and sort them out all at once."—Senate Natural Resources Chairman Chris Bray

"So it will be one of those dynamic works in progress in the end,” said Bray. “I think it actually makes sense because we have a lot of competing interests and so we need to clarify all of them and bring them to the table and sort them out all at once."

It's estimated that the state needs $25 million  a year in each of the next 20 years for cleanup.

Right now, roughly $15 million is set to come from the state's capital bill, the property transfer tax and unclaimed bottle deposits.

That leaves a $10 million hole.

Jon Groveman, policy director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, is very critical about the Senate's approach.

"We were very disappointed and concerned because we've been at this for three years now and at every crucial turn we've seen funding not happen,” Groveman said. 

The Scott Administration is proposing using Vermont's estate tax to raise the new revenue, but it says it's open to other possibilities.

Ron Rhodes, River Steward at the Connecticut River Conservancy, said Scott deserves credit for at least trying to solve the revenue question.

“That's the thing that just irritates me the most is that we've got 4,000 projects already identified ready to go and we don't have the long term funding to start to implement them," he said. "We would have hoped that the Senate, even if they didn't like that proposal, would have hoped that they would have come up with their own idea and their own funding source,” said Rhodes.

The House Ways and Means committee is now reviewing the bill. Calais Rep. Janet Ancel is the chairperson of the panel.

She says the committee will consider a wide range of tax sources.

But she doesn't support the governor's plan to use the estate tax because that tax is already funds other  programs.

"The one commitment that I've made is whatever we come up with for water will not affect the General Fund so we did not think the estate tax was an appropriate revenue source," said Ancel.  

But Ancel is confident that her committee will identify a clean water tax source in the coming weeks.

"It's a complicated puzzle to put together but I'm confident we'll be able to come up with a proposal and hopefully get it to move through the House and through the Senate - we'll see,” said Ancel.

Even if lawmakers agree on a clean water funding source in the final days of the session, there's no guarantee that Scott will support that decision.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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