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Tax hikes mulled to pay for Lake Champlain cleanup

Thursday, February 27, 2014
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— Lawmakers are considering cleaning up Lake Champlain through control of stormwater runoff, farming regulations and other efforts and paying for it by raising taxes on visitors to Vermont's hotels and restaurants.

The runoff is blamed for polluting the lake and causing excessive algae growth that has turned some of its waters murky shades of green, brown or blue.

A water quality bill discussed Thursday in the House is one of several proposals being examined as a way to address the cleanup. In addition to new regulations to control the runoff, the bill also calls for fencing off livestock from state waters, additional farming regulations and the establishment of a fund for water quality projects, flood damage repairs and flood prevention.

Runoff is a dilemma that requires statewide cooperation, said both lawmakers and advocates.

"If your house has a roof and you have pavement, you're contributing to stormwater runoff," said Rep. Kate Webb, a Democrat of Shelburne.

The cost of cleaning up all the state's waterways was estimated at $155 million over 10 years in a 2013 report, and the bill also covers the Connecticut River and Lake Memphremagog.

"We're going to have to provide these services statewide," Jim Leland of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture said.

Among the costs are about 10 positions for the agriculture department that would need to be phased in over six years. The cost for salaries would be about $1 million, according to members of the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources.

Transportation, forestry management and other costs are still being determined.

Lawmakers also discussed tax hikes on vehicle rentals and sales of liquor and wine to pay for the Lake Champlain cleanup, but taxes on hotel rooms and restaurant meals are the most likely to be added, according to Webb.

The committee proposed a half-percent increase for such taxes, which would generate $7 million. By Webb's calculation, the rooms tax would add 50 cents to a $100 hotel bill. A quarter percent increase on rooms and meals was also discussed as an alternative.

"It's, in some ways, asking for help from those who come to our state and enjoy our wonderful water," Webb said.

But restaurants can't afford to charge more if they wanted to stay competitive regionally, Tori Ossola of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce wrote in a letter to the committee.

Rep. Mark Huntley, a Democrat from Cavendish, worried about how businesses, town governments and residents might react to that spending and to tax increases.

"A pushback is not going to be the word for it, at least in my neck of the woods," Huntley said.

Webb emphasized that all changes would be gradually phased in and said lawmakers were "trying to keep it at a level that's not going to have a noticeable impact on those businesses."

An annual stormwater runoff fee of $10 per residence and $20 per nonresidential property was also examined. Lawmakers discussed adding $5 to the stormwater runoff fee that the towns could keep, in response to criticism from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

Anything being discussed could be changed, noted Rep. Jim McCullough, vice chairman of the committee.

"Anything we put on this board is just as easy to take off the board," McCullough said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects to have the state's proposed goals by the end of March and a commitment letter from Gov. Peter Shumlin by the end of April. Webb said she hoped the bill would be pass committee soon to meet the deadline for it to be voted on by the full House and Senate this session.

New York officials are also interested in Vermont's cleanup efforts because it will influence the EPA's template for their side of the lake, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears said this month.

 
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