How to pay for clean water? GOP, Dems butt heads
The battle over how to fund a waterway cleanup initiative is beginning to move from a simmer to a boil – despite that a bill has yet to be introduced.
Senate Republicans are sniffing out cash they’ve frequently criticized for sitting stagnant in the state budget: money raised by the Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) and funds collected through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI.
Together, they say the two programs have $45 million in reserve funds that have been slowly accumulating for years.
Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle (R-Sharpley) says he’s not denying there’s a problem with clean water infrastructure in Delaware, saying constituents tell his colleagues about health issues they have with nearby waterways.
“Other people have flooding issues and there’s a variety of sort of infrastructure issues related to water so we’re not denying that. We’re just questioning why would you create a new tax when we’re sitting on close to $45 million,” Lavelle said.
That new tax could come in the form of a flat $40 fee for individuals on their personal income tax and $75 extra for business license fees.
The money would then go toward trying to detoxify Delaware’s sorely polluted bays, lakes, ponds, rivers and streams.
Sen. Bryan Townsend (D-Newark), who helps lead a task force working on potential legislation, says backing clean water or fighting for better air quality isn’t an either-or choice.
“Delawareans should not have to choose between clean energy and clean water. They deserve both, and they should not have to wait any longer. This last-minute proposal fails to account for how greenhouse gas emissions ultimately affect water quality and flooding in Delaware's marshes and along our coastline,” Townsend said in a statement.
Each of the hundreds of bodies of water is at least 50 percent polluted, with rivers standing out as the dirtiest.
Two years ago when Gov. Jack Markell (D) floated a $500 million, five-year blitz to scrub lakes and streams, 94 percent of rivers didn’t support healthy fish and 86 percent of them weren’t safe for swimming.
Even Democrats swiftly rejected that initiative in one of the toughest legislative years Markell has seen.
Because of the severity of the problem Brenna Goggin, advocacy director at the Delaware Nature Society, says the GOP effort is appreciated, but it won’t come close to meeting the state's extreme needs.
“$30 to $40 million is a drop in the bucket when you’re talking about a $100 million annual [need]. Every year, we need $100 million to address the failing infrastructure and the pollution and the agricultural best management practices that we consistently underfund,” Goggin said.
DNREC Secretary David Small also says money needed to properly bankroll a cleanup effort "dwarfs" money from RGGI and SEU reserve accounts. "Redirecting these funds would sacrifice critical activities for combating climate change, while also being insufficient to address clean water needs," Small said.
Lavelle notes the money may run out from those funds, but other options may appear.
“It’s a start and if we’ve become aware of this $45 million, perhaps there’s other money out there in a $4.1 billion plus [budget] and not to mention federal money that’s come in and who else is sitting on what kind of money.”
It’s not even clear the General Assembly could legally use those funds, though.
Republican senators say a memorandum of agreement among Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states for RGGI allows them to use 75 percent of those funds for “other projects” aside from curbing greenhouse gasses.
But a review by Delaware Public Media found no such language.
State law also directs where money from RGGI can go:
- 65 percent of funds go directly to SEU to promote energy conservation, renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, among other initiatives
- 15 percent bankrolls weatherization assistance and fuel assistance programs for low-income residents
- 10 percent goes toward reducing greenhouse gasses
- 10 percent helped to implement and run a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions
Sen. Harris McDowell (D-Wilmington North), a fierce defender of the SEU and RGGI agreement, blasted the proposal in a statement, saying some of those funds are already committed and aren't taxpayer dollars.
"This Republican proposal is a clear attempt to rob Peter to pay Paul instead of them stepping up to be part of a more comprehensive solution to protect our environment," McDowell said.
A final task force meeting to cement details of the clean water initiative is set for next week, but Townsend made no promises on introducing a bill by the end of June.
Any new legislation would then have to be filed after the election when lawmakers return to Dover in January.