We’ll clean up Lake Champlain with platitudes

Last week, the gubernatorial candidates discussed environmental issues at a forum organized by Vermont Conservation Voters. It can be viewed online here; unfortunately, the audio quality is poor. Here’s a link to the video with better sound quality.

I’m writing about the two Republicans, who delivered wheelbarrows full of bromides, boilerplate, and empty words. It’s safe to say that if Phil Scott or Bruce “Still A Candidate” Lisman wins the corner office, we’ll be back to the Jim Douglas age of high-falutin’ words and little or no action.

This is disappointing if unsurprising on issues like renewable energy, regulation of toxic chemicals, transportation, development, carbon emissions, and energy efficiency. But on Lake Champlain?

Hey, guys, we’re under a federal mandate. If our actions don’t satisfy the EPA, the feds are going to swoop in and force remediation. On their terms, not ours.

That realization hasn’t penetrated their skulls. Or it has, and they’re just whistling past the graveyard. Because their “plans” don’t even begin to seriously confront the situation.

Both candidates make appropriate noises about the importance of a restored Lake Champlain. The opening question asked the candidates to choose “the most pressing environmental issue facing Vermont.” Lisman offered three: “Water, water, and water.”

(Scott bungled the question, unspooling his standard campaign bio. Moderator Anne Galloway upbraided him for failing to provide an actual answer. Given a second chance, he wandered all over the place, listing energy, renewable siting, Champlain, “Act 250 reform,” and “how do we balance our environmental concerns with a growing economy.” In short, instead of a thoughtful response, he regurgitated the “Environment” section of his “Issues” webpage.)

Lisman also acknowledged that we “have gigantic needs for money to source the cleanup of Lake Champlain.” Scott noted that “We have a challenge ahead of us.”

When called upon to back up those words with an actual plan, both candidates failed the leadership test.

Slowpoke at the wheel

Scott offered nothing beyond platitudes. “We didn’t get into this situation overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it overnight.” He refused to confront the farming industry, the number-one polluter of Lake Champlain.

[Farming] is part of our tradition and so forth. So what we need to do is to re-establish the priority to try and help in those sectors, try and put our limited resources in the areas where we get the biggest bang for our buck.

I think that we have to go hand in hand with the farming community. I don’t think it’s fair to just point them out and make them pay. I think this is a state problem and we’re all in this together. We’ve all benefited from our farming community. It’s part of our tradition, part of our DNA, and we have an obligation to help them as they help us.

Excuse me. “…as they help us”? You mean, how they “helped us” befoul Lake Champlain? Well, I guess so; in Scott’s eyes, it would be unfair to make polluters pay or impose new regulations on them.

And then there’s the anti-tax dog whistle: “our limited resources” means “don’t expect any more money.”

He also managed to shoehorn in his campaign’s safe word, “affordability.”

We first have to acknowledge we have an issue with affordability, and I think we need to focus on that in the next two to four years, so that we can clean up the lake, clean up other sources of water throughout Vermont. But again, I think we have to focus on the economy first if we’re going to have the resources necessary to do the cleanup in the future.

And there it is: the Laffer Curve. Grow the economy, a rising tide floats all boats, and government will have the resources to tackle the problem.

In short, Phil Scott would impose no new regulations, he would create no new funding, and he would hold out hope that his administration would so significantly grow the economy “in the next two to four years” that we would then be able to afford action on Lake Champlain.

This is just grossly inadequate. Plus it ignores the fact that we are under an EPA mandate. The Scott “Plan” would ensure our failure and usher in federal control of the process.

The Wizard of Wall Street

Lisman, by contrast, does offer a new idea or two. They’re completely inadequate, of course, and mostly he offers the same old, same old empty words.

His first big idea: Plunder the Vermont Housing and Conservation Fund, transferring the bulk of its state funding to the Clean Water Fund. Which is fine, except (1) it’s still woefully inadequate, (2) it decimates a very impactful program, and most of all, (3) posits a false dichotomy: you can have one or the other, but not both.

His next big idea:

I think there’s a large market for performance-type bonds and green bonds that would pay one percent for ten years if the state is successful in using that money, demonstrable evidence that they’ve done it right, or six or seven percent if they don’t.

Now, selling bonds in itself is not a bad thing. The Democratic candidates’s Champlain plans include bond sales. But the idea of “performance-type bonds” with a huge financial penalty for failure — a bill that would come due after Bruce Lisman would be safely out of office — is a bad idea. Especially since the cleanup of Lake Champlain is going to be a long, slow process that may not pay off in ten years.

Especially with the minimal effort that Lisman would put into the cleanup. His plan would virtually ensure failure.

On the regulatory side, he’s got nothin’.

I don’t think we need new regulations. I thik we merely have to enforce those that we have.

That was all he had to say about regulation. I doubt that would satisfy the EPA.

Also unsatisfying to our court-mandated federal overlords:

It’s a big task, Lake Champlain, and so I propose focusing on the northern end of the lake.  It’s the worst and sickest part. It’s been sick the longest.

Yeah, well, except that the EPA has set tough new standards for the entire lake, not just the northern part.

As for agriculture, his only offering was to spend part of his green-bond money on buying land from consenting farmers and putting it out of production. Which is incremental, entirely voluntary, and totally inadequate.

I seem to be using the term “inadequate” a lot, don’t I?

Well, that’s what it is. Not just because we all want a cleaner Lake Champlain — or at least a Champlain that’s not a total disgrace that belies our allegedly superior environmental stewardship. But, more pressingly, because we have no choice but to meet the EPA’s new standards.

This issue is going to be front and center on the next governor’s agenda. He or she will be forced to confront Lake Champlain head-on, and provide real solutions that will pass federal muster.

So far, neither Phil Scott nor Bruce Lisman has come close to meeting this challenge of leadership. Given their dependence on Republican platitudes, I doubt they’re suddenly going to have a change of heart.

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