Scott aides: Hold the line on environmental fees

Julie Moore, the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger
Gov. Phil Scott’s administration has this year refused to submit a “fee bill” that traditionally every three years updates the Agency of Natural Resources’ fee amounts.
Scott and his aides justified the move by simply stating that Scott has said before that he won’t permit taxes or fees to increase.
“As I’ve stated repeatedly, I think voters need a break from taxes and fees,” Scott said.
ANR Secretary Julie Moore leaned hard on the same rationale Scott employed.
“ANR is not submitting a fee bill this year because the Administration is committed to not raising fees or taxes,” Moore wrote in an email.
It’s a calculated political move that merely shifts additional costs to Scott’s successors, while setting up ordinary Vermonters for a nasty surprise in six years, said the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison.
“It’s a bit puzzling to me, because one reason we’re on a three-year cycle for revising all fees is so we do modest increases to them, allowing the to keep up with inflation and the actual administrative expense levels experienced by the program,” Bray said.
“From a governance point of view, if you pass over adjusting your fees, they get further out of sync” with the cost of the programs the fees pay for, “and then the fees jump, and that’s upsetting for the people paying the fees,” he said.
“Quite frankly, to do that across the board is a political decision, and not a good-governance or a financial decision,” he said.
Fees are instituted so that the same Vermonters who use a state program actually pay their fair share for the program they’re using, Bray said.
If fees don’t keep pace with inflation and staffing costs, they don’t serve that purpose, Bray said. Since inflation and staffing costs reliably increase over time, fees need periodically to increase proportionally, he said. Otherwise, the programs end up subsidized by Vermonters who don’t use them, he said.
The governor’s decision not to carry out the ANR’s three-year fee update is “completely consistent” with Scott’s approach to the state’s water-pollution woes, Bray said.
The state is currently under multiple federal orders to reduce phosphorus pollution into public waters, and last summer the pollution led to closed beaches along the length of Lake Champlain, and Lake Carmi’s closure to drinking and recreation altogether for months.
The cleanup is expected to cost Vermonters $1.2 billion over the next 20 years, and the Legislature last year directed Moore and several of Scott’s administrators to come up with a long-term funding method.
Moore and the other administrators refused, and said there’s no need for those funds until the middle of the next decade, even while acknowledging that the delay would likely cost Vermonters more in the end.
“It’s an attractive thing to go to voters and say you’re pledging no new fees and no new taxes,” Bray said. “But I don’t think it’s a wise pledge, from a good-governance point of view, because you have to budget for things that are going to experience inflation. What if there’s another Hurricane Irene? Are we going to stick to that pledge?”
Read the story on VTDigger here: Scott aides: Hold the line on environmental fees.