Tax variations: Large, medium and small

Posted
Rep. Cynthia Browning

The Vermont Legislature has been called back into session by Governor Scott to deal with a disagreement about whether to use unanticipated state tax revenue to pay down unfunded pension liabilities or to keep property tax rates level. I will be suggesting that the state transfer additional money into the Education Fund to cover the total cost of the property tax reductions that serve as incentives for the Act 46 mergers. The cost of these incentives has driven up property taxes for all districts, so that districts that did merge get less of a reduction, and those that couldn't merge pay more through no fault of their own. This transfer could keep property tax rates level, and any surplus beyond that amount could be used to pay down pension liabilities.

The Clean Water Act laid out programs and policies for cleaning up our lakes and rivers but did not establish sufficient mechanisms to pay for it. We are now funding the clean water programs in the regular budget and with investments of bonded Capital Bill dollars. But we will likely need additional revenue for these efforts in the next few years, especially in terms of storm water runoff that contains sediment, phosphorus, nitrogen, and other pollutants.

This is mostly to finance renovations at municipal wastewater treatment plants and to support agricultural efforts to reduce runoff from fields, largely in the Lake Champlain watershed.

The Vermont House passed a bill that would have imposed an increase in the state Rooms and Meals Tax in several years if there was no better way to raise clean water revenue. This would have meant that hotels, motels, and restaurants in our area would have had to charge customers more tax, even though nothing that we do here pollutes Lake Champlain. I was one of many representatives opposing this tax, and we succeeded in removing it from the bill. It makes more sense to impose taxes on materials and activities that directly contribute to the pollution in Lake Champlain, and then use that revenue to mitigate the effects of those same activities.

The Clean Water Act also imposed new obligations on municipalities to reduce storm water runoff from roads and to upgrade drainage systems, along with a new permit fee. It struck many of us as profoundly unfair that this fee would have been the same amount for towns with 10,000 people and 100 miles of roads and towns with 300 people and 30 miles of roads. I worked with others to change this fixed flat fee to a fee that is adjusted for population and miles of roads in a way that means that all towns will pay less. I hope that this change will make it all the way through the legislative process. The amount of money saved by each town is small on an annual basis, but it is important to uphold the principle of proportionality in setting these fees.

Cynthia Browning represents Arlington, Manchester, Sandgate and part of Sunderland in the Vermont House of Representatives.

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