A bill that would dedicate $25 million a year toward tackling Delaware’s growing backlog of water-cleanup and drainage projects cleared a key legislative hurdle Wednesday.
The measure passed out of the House’s Natural Resources Committee, setting up a vote before the full chamber later this month.
Supporters say they hope to couple the dedicated funding with bonds to raise the annual total to $50 million. The state faces a $100 million annual shortfall in funding water quality programs aimed at reducing pollution to waterways, managing flooding and updating water infrastructure, according to a state task force report.
Last year, the legislature set aside $10 million for water cleanup efforts, the largest sum in decades.
“This legislation this year makes clear that we prioritize clean water,” state Sen. Bryan Townsend told about 125 cheering bill supporters during a rally on the Capitol’s steps before the committee hearing. “This legislation is so key because it says we are going to guarantee, not subject to the annual whims, a guarantee of funding.”
That guarantee, though, could lead to the bill’s demise. A key state lawmaker and members of Gov. John Carney’s administration objected Wednesday to earmarking general spending funds in a manner they warned could tie their hands in future budgets.
House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf said he backed last year’s version of the bill, in part, because it raised most of its funding through a new fee attached to income tax filings and business licensing. That bill failed to make it out of committee.
Since the new bill taps into existing revenues, it would potentially sap funding from other pressing initiatives, Schwartzkopf said. And if the state uses that money to obtain bonds, lenders will likely require that funding to be locked into place for years to come.
“The funding process is not what we do,” the Rehoboth Beach Democrat told the committee. “It’s not how we fund projects in this state.”
Finance Secretary Rick Geisenberger and Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Shawn Garvin also questioned the funding method. When the state has dedicated funds in the past, it has been for “narrow” purposes, such as using highway toll revenues for road maintenance, Geisenberger said.
House Majority Leader Valeria Longhurst, the bill’s lead sponsor, sounded optimistic about its passage, telling advocates she believes it is “at the end of our marathon.” But she also referred to the legislation as a “work in progress” and vowed to work with the Carney administration and skeptical lawmakers to iron out their revenue concerns.
The bill is backed by a broad coalition of more than 50 environmental groups, civic organizations and trade groups known as the Clean Water Alliance. A dedicated funding source is needed, they say, to clean up the 90 percent of state waterways that are listed as impaired and the 100 miles of waters under fish-consumption advisories.
“Historically, the state of Delaware has funded water as needed, which runs anywhere from a half-million dollars to last year [when] we were successful in getting $10 million,” said Brenna Goggin, advocacy director for the Delaware Nature Society, one of the alliance’s steering committee members. “We have been successful in moving the needle, but we still have a long way to go.”
Delaware is one of six states, along with the District of Columbia, that have signed on with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to implement Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals by 2025. A little more than one-third of the state’s land area — mostly its rural western portion — drains into a creek or river that feeds the Chesapeake.
The state represents only about 1% of the Chesapeake’s total drainage area. That‘s not much. But its $800,000 contribution toward the restoration in 2018 accounted for an even smaller share of the total spent by the watershed states — about .05%. The state is also off track toward meeting its Bay nutrient reduction obligations.
The creation of a dedicated water fee that would raise its own revenue has gained little traction over the years in the First State, though. A $30 million annual fee proposed by then-Gov. Jack Markell in 2014 never even made it into bill form. An ill-fated bill sponsored the next year would have charged homeowners fees starting at $45 a year.
The political tide may be shifting, though. Thirty-four lawmakers have signed up to co-sponsor the latest bill, including 22 of the House’s 41 members. That level of support drew a “wow” Wednesday from Rep. Debra Heffernan, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee.
The bill draws funding from portions of existing revenue sources: income tax revenue, business revenue taxes, taxes on real estate sales and corporate income taxes. The funds would be managed by a newly created Clean Water Trust to be overseen by four cabinet secretaries as well as an expert in public-private finance.
The money would be set aside for increasing flood resiliency, repairing failing sewage pipes, improving drinking water, cleaning up nutrient and sediment pollution in waterways and offering cost-share funding for conservation practices on farms.
Nan Zamorski, a resident of Seaford, called the bill “Delaware’s Clean Water Act” during her turn at the lectern Wednesday. “We need to take this path as Delawareans for our quality of life,” she said.
The legislative session ends June 30. If the bill doesn’t pass, lawmakers can pick up where they left off in January during the second year of the two-year session.