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Governor stresses renewables, lake cleanup in inaugural address

MIDDLEBURY — There was a distinct Addison County flavor to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s Jan. 8 inaugural address, during which he emphasized renewable energy initiatives, agriculture and renewed efforts to clean up Lake Champlain.
During a speech in the House chambers that was preceded and followed by the loud protests from single-payer health insurance advocates, the governor gave shout-outs to several Addison County individuals and businesses, including Middlebury College graduate Graham Fisk, now a technician at the solar power company SunCommon; the Lewis Creek Association; Middlebury-based Faraday, a company that recently won a $1 million federal contract to develop smart solar mapping tools; and Salisbury farmer Brian Kemp, whom he credited for using innovative and cost-effective solutions in preventing agricultural runoff.
Shumlin, whose election to a third consecutive term was affirmed by the General Assembly a few hours prior to his speech, promised to use his budget address this Thursday to declare his priorities on other issues facing the state — including health care reform, education finance reform and economic development efforts. The governor’s job performance is likely to face more scrutiny this year by voters, who in November chose to re-elect him by a modest 2,400-vote margin over Republican challenger Scott Milne.
“I heard clearly in the election this fall that Vermonters expect more from me and from the state to improve their lives,” Shumlin said. “From jobs to the environment, I have an agenda for progress that I will partner with you to fulfill in this term and beyond. That agenda is rooted in the abundance of hope that I have for Vermont’s future and my sincere belief that our best days are ahead of us, not behind.”
But Shumlin stuck to environmental issues in his inaugural, and urged the Legislature to support several of his initiatives within that context, including:
•  An Energy Innovation Program, to replace the SPEED program, that would create incentives for utilities to help customers save money and cut fossil fuel use through energy innovation projects. These would include projects calling for utilities to provide leasing or financing options to help customers do deeper efficiency improvements, or install cold-climate heat pumps, solar water heating and geothermal or biomass heating, for example. The new EIP program, if implemented, would result in more than 1,000 new jobs, save Vermonters “hundreds of millions of dollars” on their energy bills, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by around 15 million metric tons — nearly a quarter of the reduction needed for Vermont to be on track to meet its 2050 climate goal, according to Shumlin.
•  Implementing the Lake Champlain restoration plan the state submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last spring. He warned that if the state does not act proactively with its plan, it risks having the EPA mandate a more costly and potentially less effective cleanup.
“We know the biggest contributors to our water quality problem — 40 percent from farm runoff and 20 percent from roads and developed lands,” Shumlin said. “We also know the largest pollution sources that we should address first and where they are located.”
Shumlin proposed a four-point plan to prevent pollutants from reaching the lake, including assisting towns in establishing storm water management systems to capture and treat runoff from roads; directing new resources to farmers and loggers to reduce pollution emanating from their operations; redoubling efforts to enforce the state’s water quality standards in the Lake Champlain Basin; and denying Current Use program tax benefits to what Shumlin called the “relatively few farmers” who are not following pollution control rules.
To pay for his environmental agenda, Shumlin plans to use increased federal dollars, state funds and a new dedicated state Clean Water Fund. The capital budget will include $6.75 million for technical assistance and direct investment in water quality projects in the Lake Champlain Basin and around the state. This includes $1.6 million in state matching funds which will leverage $8.2 million in federal EPA grants for a total of $9.8 million for low-interest loans to municipalities through the clean water state revolving fund. The capital budget also increases to $3.75 million funding for innovative storm water management projects, and $1.4 million in funding for the Agency of Agriculture’s cost sharing program for livestock fencing and other measures. The Transportation bill also includes $3.2 million for storm water retrofits and other projects to reduce polluted runoff from back roads.
The Clean Water Fund would be used to strengthen water quality efforts, and would accrue to $5 million this year through a fee on agricultural fertilizers that will raise approximately $1 million to address farm practices, and an impact fee to be paid by owners of commercial and industrial parcels within the Lake Champlain watershed. That annual fee would amount to $100 to $200 for a typical large parcel. The fund will also be open to private contributions — including a recent pledge of up to $5 million (over five years) from Keurig Green Mountain.
LOCAL REACTION
Addison County lawmakers gave generally good marks to Shumlin’s inaugural priorities, recognizing that he will come forward with the balance of his agenda on Jan. 15.
“He spent a lot of time talking about the environment and the economy, and those are two critical issues as we move forward,” said Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven.
Smith is a longtime farmer and veteran member of the House Agriculture Committee. As such, he voiced some concerns about the prospect of farmers being threatened with Current Use-related sanctions. He also believes the state must allow more local input into solar array proposals. As it stands, the Vermont Public Service Board has permitting oversight over solar farms.
“In Addison County, we are seeing a lot of solar production going in place without any local voice in it, and I think we need to put a local voice in it,” he said. “And I think we need to be careful that we don’t squander our agricultural land (for solar projects).”
Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee. It’s a panel that will clearly play a major role in shepherding any of the governor’s environmental quality initiatives through the Legislature.
Like Smith, Van Wyck is not a fan of Shumlin’s proposal to penalize farmers who are not complying with agricultural runoff rules. He also vowed to support legislation aimed at giving municipalities more input into the permitting process for solar arrays.
“I think there is concern in the Route 7 corridor about the explosion of solar arrays,” Van Wyck said. “I’m also concerned about the overall affordability of renewables. I want to meet on the committee and see what the overall economic equation is for the average ratepayer in the state as a whole.”
Freshman Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol, said he wants to hear the entirety of Shumlin’s 2015-2016 agenda before fully assessing its merits. But in the meantime, he said he supports the governor’s environmental priorities.
“I’m all about making sure Lake Champlain can remain a viable, beautiful lake … and hopefully we can be very smart about spending the money (for its cleanup),” Baser said. “I’m a little concerned when I hear about this punitive action against farmers who might not be following the rules. Sometimes, sugar gets you a lot farther than a slap.”
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, said his focus will be on school issues as chairman of the House Education Committee. He anticipates the governor will touch upon that subject during his budget address. But Sharpe said he has been a longtime supporter of renewable energy programs and efforts to clean up Lake Champlain.
“(Vermont) has been a leader in alternative energy, and I was very pleased to hear him say we are going to redouble our efforts in that area,” Sharpe said.
“We are losing our battle for (a clean) lake, and we need to change that tide,” he added.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, was pleased with the tone of Shumlin’s speech.
“The devil is always in the details,” said Lanpher, who as a member of the House Appropriations Committee will help determine funding for Shumlin’s initiatives.
Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, agreed there was a lot to like about Shumlin’s message.
“He’s proposing some good innovations on climate change, and wants to help out lakes,” Nuovo said. “I liked his speech; I thought it was one of his best.”
Unlike some of her colleagues, Nuovo agreed with Shumlin’s suggestion of penalizing farmers who don’t comply with the state’s pollution runoff rules.
“I think we need to crack down,” Nuovo said. “It’s time to get the water clean, and keep it clean.”
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, recently stepped down as House majority leader.
“I think the things (Shumlin) was talking about are really relevant,” Jewett said.
A LEADER ON ENERGY
He noted, as did the governor, that Vermont’s electricity rates have been declining in recent years — a trend contrary to what is happening in a lot of other New England states. This trend sets Vermont up as a logical leader in energy issues, according to Jewett.
“That’s cause for some sort of small celebration,” Jewett said. “There are affordability problems all around us, but that’s one area where there isn’t.”
He agreed with Shumlin’s proposal to get tougher on lake polluters.
“I don’t see why we should be paying for lake cleanup and then paying tax expenditures for Current Use for those few people are making the (pollution) problem worse,” Jewett said.
Addison County’s two state senators also gave some high marks to Shumlin’s environmental agenda.
“Energy and environment are two issues that are critical for this state’s long-term future, and also important for Addison County,” said Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven. “I think he has made some proposals that will make a meaningful difference.”
He was particularly intrigued by Shumlin’s call to crack down on polluting farms.
“Current Use is roughly a $60 million carrot that we offer to help keep our forestry and agricultural sector going, by offering them fair or reduced tax based on agriculture or forestry,” Bray said. “There is a cost to the state in doing it. The fact he is willing to withdraw your eligibility for Current Use if you’re not meeting water quality standards, I think that’s the first time I’ve heard a governor put teeth into enforcement.”
There are members of the farming community that are resentful of colleagues who are not complying with runoff rules and are thus giving the industry in general a “black eye,” Bray said. And he noted those who are not complying have cheaper production costs at their dairies and are therefore getting an unfair competitive advantage.
“(Full compliance) levels the playing field financially and brings everyone’s performance up,” Bray said.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, said she is very happy that state government “is getting serious about the lake.” She’s also pleased with the governor’s emphasis on enforcement in terms of environmental regulations. Ayer noted it was 20 years ago that the state put in place a series of environmental regulations governing farm practices, yet “we are having the same conversations (about non-compliance), in some cases with the same farmers. I think it’s time to put a little teeth in it. This won’t be popular, but I am happy to hear about Current Use. Those are tax dollars that all of us pay… and I don’t want to pay for environmental disservice.”
Ayer said she is a fan of increasing the state’s energy portfolio, but believes the Legislature should have more conversation about how such projects are sited.
“I think it has to be more of a process that rewards the host communities for doing this,” Ayer said.
Ayer is looking forward to hearing the new direction that Shumlin wants to pursue for health care reform. The governor recently suspended the state’s march toward a single-payer insurance system, citing newly released financing data. Ayer is chairwoman of the Senate Health Care Committee and will thus play a big role in the health care conversation going forward.
The county’s senior senator was not impressed with the manner in which single-payer advocates voiced their concerns and demands at the Statehouse on Thursday. Protestors chanted slogans inside and outside of the House Chambers before, and after, the governor’s speech. They also unfurled banners, and, among other things, demanded the scheduling of a Jan. 29 public hearing on financing for a single-payer plan. A beefed up Statehouse security force arrested more than two-dozen protestors after the day’s festivities were complete.
Ayer was disappointed with the protestors’ tactics.
“I think it might have been counterproductive,” she said. “I really think they played their hand to hard and I think they played it too fast.”
Ayer said protestors never approached her beforehand about scheduling a public hearing on Jan. 29. She added Vermont has already defined, within Act 48, that health care is a human right.
“No phone calls, no emails, nothing about that (Jan. 29) date,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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