Scott doesn’t support study into clean water funding options

Gov. Phil Scott at a press conference. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger
Legislators and Gov. Phil Scott agree that Vermont needs to find a long-term funding source to clean up water pollution. But the governor says he opposes the only existing proposal to accomplish that — a bill that unanimously passed the Senate on Thursday.
Just minutes after the bill passed, Scott said he was against it, despite admitting that he hadn’t read it. He said his staff had identified it as containing a new tax or fee, which is why it was included in a letter to the Legislature Tuesday listing bills that he could not support as written.
“I’m not familiar exactly with the details of the bill, but if includes a tax or fee I would be opposed,” he said. Informed by reporters that it did not include a tax or fee, but instead created a committee to study what a long-term funding mechanism might look like, Scott said that did not change his stance.
“Obviously I had it in the letter so I don’t support the study,” he said.
The Senate unanimously passed the bill, S.260, earlier in the day. It creates groups tasked with finding funding to help reduce the rate of water pollution, mainly through subsidizing farmers investing in new technology and infrastructure.
The bill would also allow Vermonters to sue state agencies that don’t uphold the laws those agencies oversee, a provision that takes a new tack in holding the state accountable for its water quality commitments.
State waters are so polluted that the federal government has imposed multiple federal pollution-reduction orders that are now in effect, requiring the state to bring its rivers, lakes and streams into compliance with federal clean-water laws. Much of Vermont’s publicly-owned surface water also violates state clean-water laws.
Scott reiterated on Thursday that a long-term funding source is needed to respond to the state’s water-pollution woes.
However, S.260, is only one piece of legislation now before lawmakers that seeks to secure a such a funding source, and Scott said that while his administration was committed to cleaning up polluted waters, it had not come up with a plan to make that happen.
Scott’s letter to the Legislature said he opposed the bill because it “requires the design of a fee” and because it “violates the separation of powers.”
The two study groups created by the bill would devise plans to pay for $25 million in annual clean-water efforts either by raising revenue or by reducing expenditures. That amount has been estimated as what’s needed to bring the state’s public waters into compliance with state and federal clean-water laws.
Most of that pollution reduction is slated to occur in farming, which pollutes Vermont public waters more than any other single industry. Farmers typically receive subsidies covering up to 90 percent of the cost of projects reducing their rate of water pollution.
The committees would study the establishment of a fee on landowners who contribute to water pollution, and that fee must be in proportion to the affected landowners’ rate of water pollution. The groups may also recommend funding the annual $25 million by cutting state spending elsewhere.
One of the two study groups is composed of lawmakers, and the other is made up primarily of the political appointees who head state agencies.
Scott’s administrators say the other part of the bill, essentially giving Vermonters the right to sue state agencies not doing their job, will strain state resources and allow everyday citizens to dictate priorities for state agencies.
The bill must still win backing from the House, and then Scott’s signature, before it can become law.
Read the story on VTDigger here: Scott doesn’t support study into clean water funding options.