The Word in the House 4/15/2015 - Cleaning up the Waters of the State

A lot has happened in the legislature in the two weeks since I wrote my last article on the budget. I took time out from writing to celebrate Easter with my family and friends. Work in Montpelier continued, however, and we passed two major bills dealing with Education and Water Quality, and my committee on Natural Resources & Energy began taking testimony on the siting of electrical energy generation facilities. Any one of these topics would take up an entire article, so let me give you an insight this week on the consideration of the water quality bill by the House.

Recognizing that Lake Champlain and Vermont's other bodies of water are extremely important to our state's economy, the House took a giant step with the water quality bill (H.35) in an effort to reduce the amount of phosphorous and other pollutants entering these waters. It engages all land use sectors - including roads, highways, agricultural operations, developed land in urban areas, waste water treatment plants, and forest lands - to implement the Lake Champlain Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) limits and the impending TMDL for other waters using cost effective strategies. There was not much disagreement on what needs to be done to accomplish this gargantuan task, one that will take years to accomplish. Having heard from pretty much everyone who has an interest in the problem, the Fish Wildlife & Water Resources Committee introduced the bill with the theme “All In”. The disagreements surfaced, however, with how the effort was going to be paid for.

Approximately $8M has to be raised for the effort. This would be done primarily through fees on agriculture operations and through a surcharge on the property transfer tax. A 2 cent surcharge on gasoline was also proposed but did not make the final cut. Small farms, defined as a parcel of land on which 10 or more acres are used for farming and that houses a specified number of animals (e.g., fewer than 200 mature dairy cows) or produces crops for sale, will be assessed $250 - $500 annually. Medium sized farms (200 - 700 mature dairy cows) will be assessed $1500 and large farms (more than 700 mature dairy cows) $2500 annually. Fees will also be assessed on feed and fertilizer. These fees will go into an Agricultural Water Quality Special Fund to assist farmers to comply with Accepted Agricultural Practices set by the Agency of Agriculture and for enforcement.

A 0.2% surcharge will be placed on the value of property subject to the property transfer tax. The surcharge is not assessed on the first $100,000 in value of property used as a principal residence, and is not assessed on the first $110,000 in value of property purchased with VHFA funds. The surcharge will be deposited in the Clean Water Fund and will sunset in 2021.

Because of the broad implications of the bill, which spanned 100 pages in the House Calendar, four committees were involved with its development: Fish Wildlife & Water, Agriculture & Forest Products, Ways & Means, and Appropriations. Of the 40 committee members voting to move the bill for consideration by the full house, only 3 voted against doing so. During the floor debate, a motion was made to vote on the non-funding sections of the bill first and then on the funding sections. The non-funding sections were passed 142 – 0. As Rep. David Deen, Chair of Fish Wildlife & Water, said, “We've done the easy part.” An amendment was offered on the remaining sections to remove the fees and transfer the required amount from the General Fund, which would have thrown the budget that was passed the week before out of whack. That amendment was defeated 100 – 40, and the remaining sections were adopted on a vote of 125 – 16. The final vote to pass the bill the following day was 133 – 11 indicating broad tri-partisan support for the bill. You can find more about the provisions of this bill in the guest posting by Representatives Bob Krebs and Sarah Buxton below.

I continue to welcome your feedback on this and other issues. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (