Lawmakers and citizens take aim at carbon tax
BRIDPORT — Carbon tax.
It was a political land mine that few state politicians wanted to step on during last year’s campaign, and there appears to be little support this year for adopting such a tax to combat climate change.
Still, the prospect of a carbon tax was the main topic of conversation at the session’s inaugural Addison County legislative breakfast at the Bridport Grange Hall on Monday.
Fanning the debate was the release last week of a state-commissioned report titled “An Analysis of Decarbonization Methods in Vermont.” The 139-page document explores two classes of policies that Vermont could pursue to further advance the transition to green energy in the state: Carbon pricing policies, such as carbon taxes or cap-and-trade programs; and non-pricing policies, such as financial incentives, mandates or direct investments.
Authors of the report suggest the state could implement a carefully structured carbon tax — in concert with other incentives aimed at reducing the use of fossil fuels — without hurting Vermont’s economy.
But Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, noted the authors conceded a carbon tax would be more harmful to those in more rural areas of the state than it would be to those living in Chittenden County, primarily because rural residents have to drive further.
Vermont has set a goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by Jan. 1, 2028, and by 75 percent by Jan. 1, 2050.
Most lawmakers have stopped short of touting a carbon tax on fossil fuels as a primary tool in encouraging renewables and paying for household weatherization programs. Entrepreneurs and business owners have warned a carbon tax could hurt the state economy while increasing the financial burden on Vermonters they believe are already feeling overwhelmed by fees and taxes.
Smith said he doesn’t believe there will be much movement toward a carbon tax this year. He noted such a levy hasn’t made the 2019 to-do lists offered by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, and Gov. Phil Scott. Smith said Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman is the only prominent state leader thus far to tout a carbon tax.
That said, Smith and his fellow Republicans know that Democrats will hold most of the cards this biennium by virtue of their sizable numerical advantages in both the House and Senate.
“I think there will be a lot more reaching across the aisle to make compromises and come up with solutions,” Smith said. “It’s very clear the Democrats have control of both the House and Senate, and they can override any veto that the governor makes. So it behooves us all to reach out and do the best we can.”
Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Middlebury, agreed. She’s beginning her first term in office, and said leaders of Vermont’s legislative and executive branches appear willing to work together for the benefit of the state. That’s an encouraging observation in wake of a 2017-2018 biennium marked by Scott’s two budget vetoes, which drew fire from a Democrat-dominated Legislature.
“I think all three leaders all had a theme of collaboration and working together this session, after a somewhat challenging session last time,” Hardy said.
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, hasn’t endorsed a carbon tax, but believes it could be part of a broader conversation on reducing greenhouse gases in the Green Mountain State.
“The carbon tax is just a small piece of that much bigger discussion,” Bray said. “It just says, ‘If we’re going to use polluting fuels, let’s figure out the costs related to using them.’”
He pointed to a recent Vermont Department of Health study indicating that weatherizing a home produces around $1,000 in annual value to Vermonters at large, in terms of reducing expenses related to cleaning the air. Bray wants the Legislature, the Department of Public Service and the Public Utilities Commission to agree on a measuring stick for carbon and its impacts.
“There’s already a cost to all of us; the question is how well we see those costs, evaluate them and then make rational decisions about how to most cost-effectively move forward,” Bray said of global warming. “We also have an obligation to take care of the planet while it’s our turn.”
Bristol resident Lynn Dike lamented the fact that some Vermonters are unable to qualify for weatherization, solar and other program benefits because their incomes are a tiny bit over the threshold for qualifying for such subsidies.
“We are on a fixed income, but it’s too high for getting this help,” she said, without which she and her husband wouldn’t likely break even on a solar investment until they reach their 90s.
“We just cannot financially do it,” Dike said.
Bray acknowledged the state has been underfunding its weatherization program. He said he hopes to correct that problem this session, and make it easier for people who now get no subsidy when they reach a certain household income level.
“It’s a great investment for everyone,” Bray said. “Rather than have a ‘cliff,’ I’m working with colleagues to turn that into a ‘ramp’ so that you at least get some assistance at higher income levels.”
Mike’s Fuels owner Mike Bordeleau asked what a business owner’s responsibility would be in terms of collection of a carbon tax, and whether a business would still be liable for the tax in cases where a customer defaults on their bill.
He added a carbon tax would substantially hurt Vermont-based fuel businesses located along the border of New York state.
“I just don’t see where we’re going to benefit,” Bordeleau said.
Bridport resident Ed Payne said he believed Vermonters might be able to afford a carbon tax if there were a corresponding decrease in the amount citizens now pay for public schools — particularly as it relates to administrators’ salaries. He argued the state employs too many principals in this era of declining student enrollment.
“We’ve got to bite the bullet,” he said. ‘Let’s have some compassion for us poor people.”
Hardy, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said she believes taxpayers will see greater school savings during the next few years, when she believes more administrative positions will be consolidated.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
Click here to read about the other issues discussed at the Legislative Breakfast.
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