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Editorial: Why it's savvy for Gov. Scott to OK a climate bill, gas tax

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Posted on April 11, 2019 |
By Angelo Lynn



Last spring, Gov. Phil Scott sent shock waves throughout Vermont and the country when he proposed and later signed — as a Republican governor — legislation that put modest restrictions on some gun sales. He won over a lot of Vermont moderates with that single stroke, and it remains a measure of Vermont’s bipartisanship that reasonable legislation can become law.

Gov. Scott could make a similar statement, on an issue of equal importance, by working with the Legislature to pass a climate change initiative that includes a modest gas tax. Two current bills are making their way through the Legislature, one of which deserves the governor’s support.

Both H.439 and S.171 call for a small bump in fossil fuel taxes, which would be used to bolster weatherization of low-to-moderate income houses. H. 439, authored by the House Ways and Means Committee, calls for a two-cent increase in the fuel tax to raise an additional $4.5 million for weatherization assistance and furnace replacement for low-income Vermonters.

The Senate Natural Resources  & Energy Committee initiated S.171, which calls for a similar hike in the per-gallon tax on heating oil, propane, kerosene and other dyed diesel fuel from the current 2 cents to 4 cents; plus it calls for a gross receipts tax of 1.5 percent (up from 0.75 cents) on the retail sale of natural gas and coal. All the revenue would flow into the Home Weatherization Assistance Fund, which is available to homeowners and businesses to defray the cost of weatherization and investments in alternative heating systems, such as heat pumps.

Of the two bills, S.171 has the better approach as it applies to a wider sector of the population, includes the business community (helping to create a stronger business climate), encourages investing in alternative energy, and, importantly, because it has a component to train people to perform the weatherization work at $19 per hour.

Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, who chairs the Senate committee and helped draft the bill, termed the legislation “weatherization for all,” adding that its jobs-development component is an essential aspect of the bill. “From the outset, it’s been a jobs development and training program, as well as delivering the weatherization program,” Bray said. “They go hand in hand. It develops a workforce.”

The bill gained Rep. Peter Conlon’s, D-Cornwall, support in the recent Legislative Breakfast held this past Monday in Weybridge. “These are pretty decent paying jobs, providing skills to people that we’re going to need for years to come,” he said. “I think it really can be described as a win-win-win, in terms of job development, economic development and climate change.”

The best part may be the low cost that also meets a critical need.

Bray noted that the current waiting list for weatherization assistance for low-to-moderate income homeowners was about 50 years.

To address that backlog, the legislation would generate an additional $4.5 million annually, plus the increased receipts tax — more than doubling the available revenue from the taxes on fuels. That’s no small feat.

And what is the cost to the average Vermonter? Bray’s committee estimated the cost at $15 annually — about the tab of buying a burger and fries at your local pub once a year. Furthermore, the legislation calls for tax exemptions for the farm and forest industries.

Not only are the costs low, the benefits are substantial. Vermonters who have participated in the weatherization program see an average savings of $600 in fuel costs during their first year; a savings that repeats itself year after year. Add it up and S.171 is a measure that Gov. Scott and his Republican colleagues could and should get behind. No serious opponent can argue that $15 per year is a burden for any Vermonter, and the benefits in fuel savings after weatherization — as well as job creation — are overwhelmingly favorable.

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Progressives might argue neither H.439 nor S.171 moves the needle far enough, and that’s fair criticism. They also would be right to point out that Vermont has made scant progress on its pledge to reduce its carbon footprint in 2030 and 2050. Indeed, Vermont’s carbon emissions are up 16 percent from 1990 levels, and have only recently started trending downward. Clearly more needs to be done.

But progressives can’t let their desire to achieve more, defeat the Legislature’s willingess to pass something that at least moves the state forward.

The pivot at this point is to counter the negative information campaign that is sure to arise from the fuel industry, and bring Gov. Scott on board to sign a modest proposal in bipartisan fashion.

Democrats and Progressives can help Scott by touting the governor’s own Decarbonization Study, which he recommended in 2017 and which received tri-partisan support within the Vermont House and Senate. In that study, the nonpartisan Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office recently released what was effectively a “strategic roadmap for actions Vermont policy makers can take to strengthen the local economy, create jobs, lower the cost of living, reduce income inequality, improve public health and limit the pollution causing global warming.”

That’s a mouthful and a bold claim, but in specific findings the study — which again was commissioned with the support of the governor — concludes that the “combined climate and health benefits of the carbon pricing policies would exceed the economic costs for every carbon pricing scenario considered,” and furthermore that “impacts on the state’s GDP, level of employment, and overall economic welfare would be very small.”

Proving those claims are true is the ticket to gaining the governor’s support — and it’s also what will shift the conversation about climate change in Vermont from how much it might cost the average person, to how much the average person will gain. That’s a vital concept and strategy as Vermont seeks to get a leg-up on the carbon-lite economy, and simultaneously help save the planet for their children’s children.

Angelo Lynn

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