Starr kicks clean water can down the road

Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex-Orleans. Photo by Roger Crowley/VTDigger
A bill before the Senate seeks to establish a clean-water authority that would be funded with a fee on utlity bills. The legislation would also give Vermonters the right to sue state agencies that don’t uphold environmental laws.
But the head of the committee drafting the bill says it’s too much too soon.
Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex-Orleans and chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, said on Wednesday that there’s no rush to find funding for a long-term strategy to clean up Vermont’s lakes.
“I believe the Treasurer told us yesterday that we have until fiscal year 2022 that we really need money for,” Starr said. “So the big hoodoo of raising a bunch of money right now, according to the treasurer — I gathered yesterday, I don’t know if you did, is: It’s not necessary.”
Actually, Treasurer Beth Pearce has been reiterating the opposite message to lawmakers, for nearly a year. Pearce says Vermont needs to put together a clean-water plan immediately or see a significant increase in future costs associated with phosphorus farm runoff.
“We need to get this done now,” Pearce said at an event Thursday afternoon that brought together lawmakers, environmental activists and citizens who want to see a long-term plan enacted this year.
Vermonters depend on the $2.5 billion brought in annually through tourism, which also puts $300 million into state coffers each year through tourism-related tax revenue. That money is in jeopardy if state waters remain polluted, Pearce said.
“We can’t let that happen,” she said. “We need to act now.”
Pearce issued the same warnings in testimony to Starr’s committee last week.
“I would ask us to take another look at this [bill] to move the bill forward this year,” Pearce told the committee. “I would recommend that the time for a decision around this is now.”
And she laid out the argument in a January 2017 report that identified 65 potential long-term revenue sources legislators could choose from.
“Cleaning our waters now is the best value to the taxpayer. Deferring actions down the road will only further impair this critical asset, requiring increased remediation at a greater cost to the taxpayer,” she said.
Pearce identified $48 million that could see Vermont through the first two years of a 20-year pollution control program, while state leaders figured out a long-term funding source. In the report, she described this as a “two-year glide path” of funding for fiscal years 2018 and 2019.
“This does not mean deferring decisions and the resulting actions down the road for another two years,” Pearce wrote.
Yet that appears to be exactly what Starr wants to do. He said on Thursday that he would like to cut the 36-page bill before his committee down to two pages, putting off plans to create a Clean Water Authority and a strategy to fund it.
Starr also said he didn’t like a provision in the bill giving Vermonters the right to sue government agencies that aren’t doing their job, describing the scenario as “inmates guarding the prison.”
Meanwhile the EPA says if the state doesn’t act to rein in farm pollution, it will force the state to spend $30 million a year on municipal wastewater systems.
EPA threatens to bring the hammer down
Gov. Phil Scott has been resistant to calls to move ahead with pollution control, even in the face of warnings from the federal government that delaying now will only increase the pain later.
Much of the tension revolves around the Lake Champlain watershed falling under a federal pollution-reduction order called a Total Maximum Daily Load. That federal order leaves it to the state to enforce the agricultural rules that will reduce 60 percent of the pollution. But Vermont needs to show it has a plan to get that done.
The state was required by the federal order to identify that funding source by the end of 2017, but it still hasn’t happened.
There appear to two prevailing political forces standing in the way. Scott has pledged no new fees or taxes under his watch, which makes raising new revenue for clean-water initiatives problematic. And lawmakers have been hesitant to reign in the 800 or so farms that are creating an estimated 40 percent of the pollution statewide — in the form of phosphorus in agriculture runoff — that needs to be cleaned up.
Lynne Hamjian, deputy director of the Ecosystem Protection Office in the EPA’s New England branch, told legislators late month that they would be well advised to implement new farming practices that stem phosphorus pollution. Otherwise, the state could be ordered to take more costly measures.
Identifying a long-term funding source for pollution control is a “key milestone” that is “crucial to the long-term success” of the federal order requiring Vermont to slow its rate of phosphorus pollution into Lake Champlain, Hamjian said.
“It’s very important for Vermont as a whole to tackle this challenge very soon, in order to provide the assurances to the EPA that the state will continue to implement the elements of the [order] and its implementation plan,” Hamjian said.
“The EPA is not in a position to tell you how to generate that revenue, what to do, how to implement that,” she said. “I think the main piece we’re concerned about is you figuring that out at the state level, and providing some assurance that you have a game plan going forward past 2019.”
If Vermont fails to enforce agriculture regulations as a way to achieve pollution reduction targets, she said it could be compelled to pursue other means like upgrading wastewater treatment plants, which are under the EPA’s oversight. But that’s likely to cost far more than the current plan, which will require Vermonters to pony up an additional $25 million to $30 million each year for the next two decades.
The bill currently before the Senate Agriculture Committee would offer Scott’s administration “another bite at the apple” after it failed to respond to Act 73, which was passed last year and required the administration to recommend a long-term funding source to come into compliance with state and federal water-quality laws, said Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison.
Scott’s administrators said in their Act 73 report that it wasn’t necessary to raise additional money until 2022. Bill S.260 is essentially a repeat of Act 73 — it again assigns administration officials the task of putting together a long-term funding plan.
Susanne Young, Scott’s Secretary of Administration, told senators that it’s “premature” to take dramatic steps to fund pollution control when there are questions remaining over how costs should be divvied up between polluters and the state.
Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore, has expressed similar concerns has also said it’s impossible to make appropriate decisions over pollution-control funding without first deciding how much polluters should pay and how much the state should pay on a given pollution-reduction project.
Yet Vermont has already established how the costs of pollution control should be apportioned between polluters and the state.
Private developers currently bear most or all the costs associated with controlling their pollution, whereas farmers receive subsidies to control pollution from their fields, with state and federal taxpayers picking up as much as 90 percent of the cost.
Moore also says decisions on funding are premature because administrators haven’t yet identified where funds should be spent, even if they were made available. Moore has suggested the pollution-control effort might be funded in part by selling phosphorous, the state’s primary water pollutant. Alternatively, she has said, the state’s economy might pick up enough that new pollution-control funding becomes unnecessary.
‘That’s got to go’
Without a long-term funding proposal from Scott’s administration, lawmakers could be forced to figure one out on their own.
S.260 sets up two parallel groups to come up with a plan: one composed of legislators and another made up of administration officials.
Their recommendations would be carried out by a Clean Water Authority overseen by a five-member panel including two members selected by Senate leaders, two selected by the House leaders and administration appointee.
The bill would take authority over funds used for water-pollution reduction away from several existing agencies, headed by Scott appointees, and place it with the Clean Water Authority.
Rebecca Kelley, the governor’s spokeswoman, the bill’s provisions are redundant. She said administration officials “remain committed to water quality,” but “have concerns that the majority of provisions in S.260 are duplicative to existing administrative programs, authority and rules. Adding duplicative administrative functions only serves to divert resources from water quality initiatives.”
Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, D-Grand Isle-Chittenden, also said S.260, as it stands, was a poor solution to the problem at hand. Rather than create more committees to study the issue, she said, lawmakers needed to act.
“I’m frustrated by some of the lack of courage when it comes to actually putting together a final plan that fulfills our responsibilities that we’ve laid out for ourselves,” Johnson told the clean-water activists who gathered at the Statehouse on Thursday afternoon.
“I believe S.260 just gets us to another conversation, and I really would like to see us end this session with an actual plan and dedicated funding,” Johnson said.
“The House is going to be taking up this issue in a much more intense way in March, when that bill comes to us from the Senate, to look at what we really can do for sustained water-quality funding,” she said.
Starr said he intends to finish trimming S.260 this week and consider a new version of the bill on Tuesday.
The Scott administration objects to the provision in the law that would allow citizens to bring lawsuits against the state for failing to abide by statutes.
Young sought to portray citizen suits against state agencies as an infringement on the separation of powers of state government. Michael O’Grady, an attorney with the legislature’s in-house counsel, told the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee last month that the bill poses no such threat.
Suits against agencies that don’t enforce the law would also further strain the limited resources available to state government, Young said. In addition, citizen suits would enable regular Vermont citizens to dictate priorities for state agencies, she said.
Read the story on VTDigger here: Starr kicks clean water can down the road.