RICHMOND, Jan. 31 -- House Republican leaders proposed Monday that Virginia spend at least $50 million a year over the next 10 years to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and the Virginia rivers and streams that flow into it.
Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said the plan, which would total $500 million over a decade, demonstrates that Republicans who control the House of Delegates will make the bay cleanup a priority in budget negotiations for coming years.
"We all share a desire to combat pollution and restore the bay in ways that are good for the environment and good for our economy," he said.
Environmentalists said that, with the announcement, there is now unprecedented consensus among state leaders that cleaning the bay is a necessity.
"We've heard lots of promises and commitments in the past, but I think they really turned a page today and said publicly it's our obligation to do this," said Jeff Corbin, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "That's something that's never been said before."
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and some senators, however, questioned the House plan to rely on economic growth alone to fund an expensive, multiyear commitment.
Warner's spokeswoman, Ellen Qualls, said the governor will probably propose spending a larger lump sum on bay cleanup this year than the House Republican proposal, but he remains concerned about long-term commitments.
Senate Finance Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Stafford) said the right financing plan has not been put forward. "This is something that we are wringing our hands about," he said. "But it's really got to be done."
By law, 10 percent of surplus tax revenue collected each year goes into the state's Water Quality Improvement Fund. With a booming economy producing larger than expected revenue, the House plan's $50 million additional contribution would result in a total expenditure of $97.4 million this year.
The money would go to improve wastewater treatment plants, which are thought to be responsible for the majority of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution flowing into the waterways. Scientists blame the pollutants for spurring the growth of algae in the bay, which in turn eat up the oxygen that crabs, fish and bay plants require. Localities could apply for matching grants to renovate and improve their treatment plants.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has mandated a regional effort to clean up the bay by 2010, a task that state officials have calculated would cost Virginia about $1.8 billion.
"If we don't do something, the EPA is going to come in and do it for us and send us the bill," House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) said.
The GOP delegates presented the idea as an alternative to a "flush tax" on sewer users, similar to the $2.50-a-month tax passed last year for the same purpose in Maryland. Bills proposing a flush tax in Virginia of $1 per week have been introduced in both the Senate and House but are not likely to pass either body.
Instead, House leaders said they would use money from the general fund, fed by the state's sales and income taxes, to pay for the $500 million plan. They said Virginia's economic growth would provide the money to sustain the commitment without raising taxes.