Clean Water in Vermont
One week ago, a group of clean water advocates, water quality experts, local teachers and professors made an urgent plea to legislators to pass a high quality water bill for Vermont this year. The theme, "All In" was advanced by Emerson Lynn from the St. Albans Messenger who moderated the two hour General Assembly meeting, which underscored that we are polluting our beautiful Vermont lakes and streams. Essentially, the assembly was a call to legislators to work to remedy the problem. At issue is the degradation of Vermont waters and primarily those of Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River and their feeder streams and rivers. I feel that the Lake Champlain pollution and green algae problems need to be born primarily by Chittenden and Franklin Counties and the industries and farms that have largely caused the pollution. But, I also believe that this is a wake-up call to all Vermonters to ensure that our waters, are clean and healthy. This means we, too, have to pitch-in. Vermont is known for our Green Mountains and also for our beautiful waters. It is part of the Vermont brand that helps drive the Vermont economy. The environment is a main reason why vacationers come to Vermont. Clearly, pollution is an issue that is not isolated to the Lake Champlain Basin. It is the responsibility of all Vermonters to safeguard our waters and ensure that there is a healthy aqua culture where fish and wildlife thrive and where we can all recreate and most importantly, drink fresh, clean water.
The House Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources Committee members have been working on this issue. At the end of last week they voted out of committee, H.35, the water quality bill, with the following key components:
1. Establishing a Clean Water Fund that prioritizes resources to the Ag Agency for compliance assistance, municipalities and non-profit water quality organizations for implementation;
2. Creating a small farm definition and certification program;
3. A complete Revision of the Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs), including language to incorporate subsurface drainage to comply with the AAPs;
4. Developing a Best Management Practice (BMPs) Standard and requiring BMPs on a case by case basis.
5. A new manure spreading and certification program.
6. Stronger language for forest land Accepted Management Practices (AMPs).
7. Regional Planning Commissions would have a larger role in the Basin Planning process.
8. A new anti-degradation policy and implementation rule.
9. Stormwater compliance of the 2002 stormwater permits for existing development of 3 acres or more (this would help resolve stormwater from sites like Highgate Springs Shopping Plaza).
10. MS4 Communities would be allowed to apply for state funds from the current Ecosystem Restoration Program and the newly established Clean Water Fund.
This Bill is over 133 pages and 17 of those pages focus on funding. To help fund this initiative, the House Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources Committee came up with a mix of taxes and fees that will impact all Vermonters. It seeks to raise near 13 million dollars for clean water annually.
First and foremost, Large Farms, Medium Farm and Small Farms will have a new permit fee. Every other business in Vermont has fees associated with them, except agriculture. The bill has a 1/2 percent increase in the Meals and Rooms and Alcohol Tax. I personally find this fee to be a problem. Having spoken with restaurant owners in our area I know this adds more of a burden on them. In comparison, those who sell clothing pay no tax. It would be more equitable , from my perspective, to reduce by ½ % the Meals, Room and Alcohol Tax and add a 1% Tax on untaxed clothing. There is a proposed 2 cent increase in the gas tax. The impact of the degrading of our streams and rivers and lakes due to run-off from our roads seems to warrant a tax. The bill also adds a fertilizer tonnage and feed tax and increases the fees on all of the stormwater permits and the stormwater discharge permits.
The one that is missing from all of these is a per parcel fee. Bill H.35 has in it a report due to the legislature for a recommendation for establishing a per parcel fee by January 15, 2016.
So, what's the difference between taxes and fees?
Fees differ From Taxes
An experienced legislator told me that one of the first tasks of the legislative year is to tackle the Annual Fee Bill. This year there was quite a bit of action on the floor concerning the bill including a couple of recesses for caucuses to meet because of disagreements.
Fees are not taxes and taxes are not fees. I always thought they were the same - since fees and taxes pull money from our pockets. But now I know differently. A fee raises money to pay for the costs of providing a particular service or license. A tax raises money to cover the general costs of government. Fees are paid only by the users of a specific service. A tax is paid by the public at large. Fees are a way to seek to keep taxes lower by requiring the users of a service to pay for the costs government incurs to provide oversight.
A fee is a fair exchange between the state and a single Vermonter or group of Vermonters for a service or product that the general population does not necessarily want or need or might want and need, but must be safe for the public. Rather than assessing a tax to the population at large to pay for such a service, fees require the actual users to pay the cost of providing the service.
By law every year the Governor's office sends to the legislature a request to make changes to state fees. Because our Vermont constitution states that all revenues start in the House, the representatives get the first look at the proposed changes, then the Fee Bill is sent on to the Senate. The Fee Bill contains proposals from various agencies and departments from a variety of sources within the administration. Individual fees come up for consideration every three years, but legislative action on a Fee Bill is an annual event. The fees we examined on the House floor were changes from the Office of the Secretary of State, the Agency of Education, the Agency of Human Services including the Department of Health and the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Labor. Requests also dealt with the Agency of Natural Resources, including the Natural Resources Board, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Agency of Agriculture. ( I referenced fees from a committee earlier in this article.)
Financially, Vermont is having a difficult time. Some programs that have never had the fees set at an adequate amount have operated on generous helpings of money from the General Fund. Because of the fiscal troubles, the state can no longer afford to supplement these fee based programs with money from the General Fund. So the Ways and Means Committee has the task, requested by the Governor, to raise most of the fees, although some of them went down and a few stayed the same.
Vermont law tells us that any fee must bear a reasonable relationship to the cost of providing the associated service. Anyone who does not need the service does not have to pay the fee. If the cost to the state exceeds what is able to be collected through fees, it has to come out of the General Fund, which every Vermonter pays into through taxes.
In examination of all of these fee requests it became evident that some of these programs serve a needed service to all Vermonters and there is a portion of the operation of this service that should be picked up by general government. But, because the General Fund also provides help for Vermonters in many other areas it was reasoned that the General Fund should not be drawn upon as extensively as in the past.
The Fee Bill we finally passed out of the House was decidedly less than enthusiastically supported. However, the fees requested by the Governor, particularly on fees on restaurants, were lessened by as much as half. I voted for the bill because I didn't want to see more funds being over drawn from the General Fund. In conversation with other legislators I raised objections to raising the fees for restaurants and bakeries and small "mom and pop" businesses and urged the consolidation of fees with the lessening of fees to small business owners and the elimination of fees for restaurants with good track records very few years. We'll see what the future brings. The Fee Bill now goes over to the Senate.
Steve Berry is a state representative to the Legislature from the towns of Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate.
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