January 22, 2019

Hotel tax proposed for clean water fund

David Deen, D-Westminster, chair of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee. File Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

By Mike Polhamus

For VTDigger

The House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife last week 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-Putney, 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 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-Underhill Center, 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

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