1.16.2015 – Water Quality and the Governor’s Budget Speech

The second week of the biennium in the House Agriculture and Forest Products (AFP) Committee was spent with a continuation of introductions and orientation. We met with folks from the AFP finance, research, and education sectors, as well as agency and statewide leaders in the field, including representatives from our congressional delegation. It is important to give our new members grounding in the basics in order to make them more effective in their work. Because we have so many new members in the House, I suspect other committees are doing the same thing.

It is clear that a major part of our work this year will be done on water quality. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working with our Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) to design the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for Lake Champlain, which is the target goal to bring the lake back into compliance. Now that the target has been determined, the State must develop with the help of the EPA an implementation plan to achieve the TMDL goal.

We know that the lake has been polluted with phosphorus by run-off from development and agriculture. The deadly blue green algae blooms have had a terrible impact on the northern lake, especially the Mississquoi and St. Albans Bay areas.

The House Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. David Deen, will be taking the lead, with AFP weighing in on the agriculture sections. My understanding is that the framework of the bill is very similar to the water quality bill last year (H.586) that passed the House with no funding.

Funding for the work required in the bill will probably be one of the major issues. One suggested revenue source from the agriculture community is a tax on fertilizer. This is not engraved in stone, however, and could be replaced by something else that brings in the same amount of revenue. On the development side, a per parcel charge for impervious surfaces (parking lots) has been suggested.
The Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets is asking for more enforcement power for times when farmers will just not comply with the Accepted Agricultural Practices. One suggestion is to deny Current Use benefits to those who continue to not comply with the guidelines.

One thing is clear, we need to take immediate steps to continue the cleanup of the lake and it isn’t that we haven’t tried already. An estimated $80-100 million has been spent in recent years and some people are discouraged because there hasn’t been more improvement.

All Vermonters need to be invested in this effort because Lake Champlain is one of the major jewels in our natural resources crown. It is the source of tourism and recreational revenue and many of my constituents at the southern end of the state vacation on Lake Champlain. We need to stop blaming the other guy for the problem, roll up our sleeves, and work together to get the job done, which is not going to be accomplished overnight – this is something we will work on now as a legacy for our children and grandchildren.

On Thursday, Governor Peter Shumlin gave his budget speech and started by saying it was his toughest budget yet. The economic forecast a year ago indicated a 5% growth rate that was overly optimistic by 2% and we are looking at a 3.5% growth rate for the next five years. As a result, we need to cut the present budget as well as next year’s.

The governor laid out five principles which guided the construction of the budget. The first was that we will not charge our budget challenges to our kids and grandkids. Second, state government must find additional ways to be more efficient. Third, wherever possible, we must make smart choices by not cutting programs that deliver more to Vermonters in economic opportunity and support than they cost. Fourth is that we should not cut state programs if it will do far more harm than good down the road. Fifth, a reliance on the principle of balance – along with cuts, there will be some revenue raised.
The governor also laid out his thoughts on health care, education, and economic development.

Regarding health care, the governor recommended additional funds to help Vermont families access medical care and pharmaceuticals when they need them. This will be paid for with a 0.7% payroll tax, which will go into the State Health Care Resource Fund. The money collected will allow the drawdown of $1.10 in federal funds for every dollar we raise in the State, for a total in 2016 of $86 million.

Regarding education, I disagree with some of the governor’s proposals. His recommendation to do away with the Small Schools Grant without evaluating the quality of education offered by those small schools is misguided. His claim that “some of our schools are so small, the scores can’t even be reported in a statistically significant way, meaning we have zero data to measure their progress” is questionable. As Chair of the Windham School Board, make no mistake, we know how our children are doing, perhaps better than in larger schools. I wish we could publish how our students are doing because they are doing excellently!