Environmental legislative preview: Lake cleanup and carbon tax

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State leaders face a sea of uncertainty about what the incoming Trump administration's policies will mean for Vermont.

One area where the financial stakes are high is the federally mandated cleanup of Lake Champlain to reduce phosphorus pollution — the source of widespread toxic and perennial algae blooms.

Leaders in the Democratic legislative majority say they intend to pursue the cleanup regardless of what the new federal administration brings. On the presidential campaign trail, Donald Trump vowed to scale back or even abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, which had ordered the state to act.

Most legislators seem to agree with the notion that conditions in Lake Champlain need to improve, said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero. But following through has proven a different matter, she said.

"There are going to be a lot of folks who say, `No new funding,' but when you ask these folks for details, there's not a lot of details," Johnson said.

That's true at the federal level now too, she said. It's impossible to forecast how much legislators might need to set aside, Johnson said, because federal funding is uncertain.

The latest figures suggest meeting federal lake pollution standards will cost in excess of $100 million a year over the long term. According to a report from State Treasurer Beth Pearce, about $25 million of that would come from state coffers each year, with the rest a mixture of private and municipal investments and federal funding.

Gov. Phil Scott and House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, are among those who've said the cleanup can be funded without new taxes, although Scott hasn't yet said how. Turner pointed to unspecified efficiencies he believes may be found within state government.

Scott may provide details when he unveils his budget proposal Jan. 26.

Pearce told legislators this week that the state can fund the most essential portions of the cleanup effort for the next two years without additional revenue. But she said legislators will need to commit to a 20-year funding source by the end of that period.

Johnson said she'll fight to fund the effort no matter what Scott does, because legislators have stalled for too long on the issue.

"We're at a tipping point, and taking things slow is what we've been doing for a while on this," she said.

Cleaning the lake should remain a priority for lawmakers if for no other reason than that Vermonters will suffer economically from polluted waterways, she said.

Senate Democratic leaders stressed the urgency as well and expressed frustration with the uncertainty surrounding the federal government.

"I strongly believe we have neglected the health of our public waterways for too long," said Senate President Tim Ashe, D/P-Burlington. "It's an easy thing to kick to the curb, because people don't get upset about it until they see algae blooms."

The effort will require not just a financial investment on the state's part but changed practices for Vermont's farmers, he said, adding that either of these is likely to meet resistance.

Nevertheless, Ashe said, "I'm determined to advance as far as we can go to have a meaningful water cleanup."

He hopes that will include participation from the federal government.

"Right now we're basically operating under a court order," and unless that's dissolved, Ashe said, he'll plan as though the order will remain in effect.

Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, center, and Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, share a laugh with House Speaker Shap Smith, right. Photo by John Herrick

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, center. File photo by John Herrick

Turner said he's certain the state's estimated share of cleanup costs can be paid for through cuts to other programs. He wants legislative committees to spend time learning about the programs they oversee, so they can identify efficiencies.

"If every committee could focus for the first six weeks," he said, "and really scout every program in their jurisdiction, you could start to get a real feel for what's working, and what's been around forever that we don't know if it does anything, you know?"

These efficiencies will "entirely" pay for the lake's annual cleanup price tag, Turner said, although he couldn't say how soon.

He said his party hasn't taken a position on how to fund efforts to reduce pollution in Lake Champlain.

Another issue that some expect to come before the Legislature again this year is a carbon tax.

A carbon tax would impose a surcharge on fossil fuels, as a means of discouraging their use. Supporters say successful carbon taxes, such as one in British Columbia, often work by replacing other taxes in proportion to revenues raised by the carbon tax.

Two carbon tax bills proposed in last year's legislative session would have added 88 cents per gallon to the price of gasoline after annual increases phased in over 10 years. But they would have cut sales taxes and returned proceeds to middle- and low-income Vermonters through tax breaks and energy conservation programs.

Scott and his party's leaders have vociferously opposed a carbon tax, arguing it would harm low-income Vermonters.

Residents who don't earn a lot are understandably worried about the cost of gasoline, Johnson said, adding that policies that could raise gas prices should be approached with caution. At the same time, she said, legislators should attempt an honest conversation on the subject soon.

Ashe said he's been told legislators will propose a carbon tax this year. It doesn't seem to have much support yet except as part of a regional effort, he said. "I haven't seen a lot of enthusiasm" for Vermont attempting one on its own, Ashe said.

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