Clean water bill advances with hotel tax

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MONTPELIER — The House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife on Friday afternoon voted in favor of a bill creating a study committee to identify funding for federally-ordered water pollution reduction in Vermont's public waters, amended to include a $2 per night hotel tax should the committee fail in its fund-finding mission.

Committee chair Rep. David Deen, D-Windham-4, proposed the surcharge earlier in the week as a message as much as a means of defraying the cost of the pollution measures.

The room tax would raise only about $7.4 million annually, about a third of the amount needed. It would take effect in 2020. "It says, 'This is what we're going to do," Deen said of the amendment. "If you have a better idea, you have two years to bring it to us.'"

The bill, S.260, must pass through two more committees before a vote on the House floor, but its greatest obstacle will be its last: the governor's office.

The state has been under a federal order for years now, to act to reduce pollution in its public waters.

Coming up with a long-term funding plan to cover the state's share of the cost — estimated at $25 million over the next 20 years — has become a point of contention between lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott

Even his supporters in the Legislature say Scott's stand is taken with an eye to upcoming elections.

"I think it's basically keeping with 'No new taxes.' I think for political reasons he's adhering to it as we go into the '18 election," said Rep. Paul LeFebvre, R-Essex-Caledonia-Orleans.

"I think they're willing to take a kind of gamble, I guess, or 'When we need it we'll find it' kind of deal," LeFebvre said. "I think they're reluctant to commit, and I think they're reluctant to commit because it's been a mantra of 'No new fees' — this is a campaign year. So I think the governor will probably stay with it; I wouldn't be surprised if we come back here on a veto on this bill."

Rep. Trevor Squirrell, D-Chittenden-3, said Scott's inflexibility may be politically advantageous, but it doesn't leave much for everyone else to work with.

"A 'No fees' comment doesn't really create a compromise or a place to negotiate," Squirrell said.

"I think it's important to set out an effort to get a sustainable funding source that's going to help support clean water initiative projects for the next 18 years, and so far it hasn't been accomplished, and this is our effort in this committee," he said. "What other branches of government decide to do with this is up to them."

Scott's notion of cost-control will likely cost Vermonters more in the long run, said Rep. Mary Sullivan, D-Chittenden-6-5.

"We have an economy that's very water-dependent in this state," Sullivan said. "When we talk about tourists and think they won't come because of a $2 occupancy fee, let me tell you, tourists won't come if we have polluted waters."

Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore has acknowledged that deferring action on water pollution is likely to increase the cost to taxpayers in the long run.

Scott's spokesperson, Rebecca Kelley, did not respond to multiple requests this week for comment on the bill.

Members of the Scott administration have voiced a variety of criticisms of S.260 but, lawmakers have said, not in a way they can address.

The administration's points of contention include the following:

- The bill would violate the constitution's separation of power clause, though the Legislature's own counsel has said he sees no conflict.

- To call for a study committee to look into the creation of a fee or tax to fund pollution reduction measures was equivalent to imposing a new tax or fee.

- An earlier version, giving Vermonters the right to sue administrators who don't uphold the law, would tie up agency resources with lawsuits.

- The state first needs to review of state pollution-control subsidies, examining the type, the rate, the recipients, the sources, and the purposes of the subsidies.

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