Tensions have flared between environmental advocates and Gov. Phil Scott's administration in recent days, sparked by concern that the administration plans to slow-play the federally mandated cleanup of Vermont waterways.
At a September 22 meeting of the state's Act 73 Clean Water Advisory Group, Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore made comments interpreted by some as indicating a plan to cut near-term spending. In fact, VTDigger.org headlined its story "ANR Chief Wants to Slow Lake Champlain Cleanup Spending."
The story, says Moore, "raised concerns that we're taking our foot off the gas, and we are not."
But it wasn't just a reporter who saw it that way. "What I took away from the meeting is that we didn't need any additional funding except for agriculture for the next five years," says Lauren Hierl, political director of Vermont Conservation Voters.
Agriculture is the single biggest contributor to the phosphorus pollution that drives algae blooms and weed growth in Vermont waterways. The administration has yet to say how exactly it will address that issue.
Moore says her remarks were misinterpreted, and she has embarked on a quick round of peacemaking with advocates. "It seemed like a reversal of course," says Jon Groveman, policy and water program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council. "But we've heard from the administration and Secretary Moore that that's not the case."
Moore insists the administration is on board with the financial outline of a 20-year cleanup plan devised by state Treasurer Beth Pearce. She projects the cost of meeting federal mandates at $50 million a year for 20 years, with the state responsible for half of the total. That's in addition to any current spending on water quality.
"We've not changed the treasurer's estimate of the overall need," Moore says, "but you can't just take the [total] number and divide it by 20. There will be bubbles in spending as plans are developed and permitted. The 20-year timeline is right, but some things are frontloaded, some will happen at a consistent rate, and some will come along later."
The slower-developing "bubbles" include major construction projects, such as wastewater treatment facilities. "Planning, design and implementation take time, but only about 20 percent of the money goes into that," Moore says. "We will spend more after design and permitting."
That approach could be a problem. This year, the legislature approved $50 million for the first two years of pollution prevention. But it balked at setting up a long-term funding mechanism, so that question will be front and center in 2018.
Moore says the administration is committed to fully funding the cleanup but isn't ready to outline a proposal. When asked about potential revenue sources, she points to possible grant funding and a projected $5 million annual infusion from the New England Clean Power Link, a power line that would transmit electricity from Hydro-Québec through Vermont to energy markets in southern New England. But the state of Massachusetts must agree to purchase the power. Moore's emphasis on a money pot that may or may not materialize — and would provide only a fraction of the needed cash — isn't exactly reassuring to the advocacy community.
And that's the real heart of the issue. Environmental groups say that the state has to identify new money — hikes in existing levies, or new taxes and fees — and they are concerned about Scott's steadfast opposition to any such option.
"We've heard no proposals for funding," Hierl notes. "It seems like the governor's political position is translating into ANR trying to figure out how we can invest in clean water without any new money."
Groveman says he is willing to listen to Moore's side of the story. But "we haven't made any progress" on a funding plan, he concludes. "Until it happens, we won't be comfortable about it."
Scott's Vermont Climate Action Commission will hold the last of its four scheduled public hearings Thursday night in Brattleboro. At the first three events, speaker after speaker touched on a theme that the Scott administration wasn't eager to hear: support for a carbon tax as a way to fight global warming. A carbon tax is a fee on fossil fuels, designed to make the cost of coal or oil reflect their impact on climate change.
The governor has been steadfast in his opposition to the idea. Following news reports about the strong backing for a carbon tax, he felt compelled to restate his opposition on his Facebook page under the heading "CARBON TAX STATEMENT FROM THE GOVERNOR."
"Vermonters spent their own time to show up and express their support for fighting climate change," says Johanna Miller, VNRC's energy program director and the only professional environmental advocate on the 21-member commission. "It's unfortunate that we're taking policies off the table in the middle of the public process."
Asked if the pro-carbon tax voices will be heard, Peter Walke, deputy ANR secretary and commission cochair, says, "That's a fair question ... The governor's statement shouldn't be a surprise. That's been his position throughout the campaign and since."
Still, he adds, "The commission will consider carbon pricing. The voices [of advocates] will be heard; we will discuss the issue."
But while Walke expresses openness to all ideas, the Vermont Republican Party sees a chance to score points. On Monday it posted a tweet proclaiming, "Here we go again! @VTDems are coordinating with @VPIRG on pro-carbon tax messaging. Help us stop them!"
A link sent with the tweet takes you to a Republican petition that claims that the Dems and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group are colluding on a stealth campaign to enact a carbon tax. It asserts, without offering a shred of evidence, that the turnout at the hearings was orchestrated by "Vermont Democrats and their radical friends at VPIRG."
Both entities deny any collusion. "The Republicans are living on Mars, creating conspiracies that don't exist," says state Democratic Party executive director Conor Casey.
"Of course we let our members know there were public hearings on climate action," wrote VPIRG climate and energy program coordinator Ben Walsh. "Why on Earth are [Scott's] party leaders going after the citizens who participated in the public process he created?"
Walke says he detected no sign of a choreographed presence at the hearings. "There's always some organized turnout," he said. "That's always to be expected. But it seemed like a good mix of people."
Vermont Republican officials failed to return requests for comment.
Former Rutland mayor Chris Louras got a new job three weeks ago, and it remains a hot topic in Vermont's labor community. He's been hired by Council 93 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a regional union that includes most of New England.
The union's choice mystified many Vermont unionists because, in his final term as mayor, Louras backed a fire department reorganization that the firefighters' union staunchly opposed. As a result, the union backed Louras challenger David Allaire in last spring's election, which Allaire won handily.
"It certainly has raised some eyebrows in labor circles," says Jill Charbonneau, president of the Vermont State Labor Council AFL-CIO. "I heard some dismay from firefighters. In fact, I heard the news from firefighters."
"I have talked with some of our Rutland guys. They were shocked," says Brad Reed, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Vermont. "It shocks me a little bit. I'm not sure how the choice was made."
And we'll probably never know, because Louras and his new employer have zipped their lips.
"I can confirm that I work for AFSCME," says Louras. "Any other inquiries have to go to [Council 93 headquarters in] Boston." When asked to elaborate about his hiring or his duties, he said, "You should contact Boston for any inquiries regarding AFSCME." When asked about labor's dismay due to the conflict with Rutland firefighters, he refused to comment on "anything to do with my former position" as mayor.
OK, well, on to Boston. In response to phone and email inquiries, Council 93 communications chief Jim Durkin provided a brief statement:
"Mr. Louras was hired as an AFSCME staff representative based on his qualifications and experience. He will be responsible for negotiating and enforcing contracts and representing the best interests of AFSCME members in Vermont. He will not be servicing our members in Rutland.
"AFSCME Council 93 will have no further comment," concluded Durkin.
Skeptical labor leaders are willing to give Louras a chance. "He hasn't generally been supportive of unions," says Reed, "but I hope he does a good job."
Charbonneau notes, with a sardonic laugh, that Louras "has a great opportunity in front of him." Including, presumably, a fair bit of convincing to do among his newfound comrades.
The Vermont Association of Broadcasters has named three veteran personalities into its hall of fame.
Judy Simpson, former WCAX-TV news anchor and the first woman to be news director at a Vermont television station, is the sixth woman — alongside 66 men — in the hall of fame.
"It's pretty obvious that [broadcasting] is very much a boys' club, especially years ago," she said. "You get used to it."
Tom Beardsley joins a long list of WDEV radio personnel in the hall, including Lloyd Squier, Ken Squier, Rusty Parker, Eric Michaels and Joel Najman. "I don't feel like I'm in their league, but I'm grateful and honored to join them," he said.
Brian Collamore has worked at WSYB in Rutland since 1974; he's also a Republican state senator. He's proud to represent his community in both arenas. "There are only a few [hall of fame] members from Rutland," he said. "Jack Healey, Ralph Smith, Frank McCormick, that's about all."
Simpson, Beardsley and Collamore will be enshrined at the association's annual VAB Hall of Fame Awards Banquet on December 2 in Burlington.
And now we must bid farewell to someone who didn't stick around long enough to make the hall but was a mainstay of television news during his six years at WCAX-TV. Keith McGilvery, anchor of the 5:30 and 11 p.m. news, is taking a new job in Connecticut. And he'd better have a darn good alarm clock.
"I'm joining Fox 61 in Hartford as a morning anchor from 4 to 10 a.m.," he says. "It's a marathon, but I'm excited."
It's a step up in market size, but McGilvery says it isn't about career building. "My family lives in Massachusetts," he explains. "I started looking about two years ago to get closer to home. I've had other opportunities to go elsewhere, but I didn't want to leave for the sake of leaving."
It sounds like a great gig, but Lord, that wake-up call sounds brutal.