By David Flemming
On Jan. 23, Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan testified before the House Energy and Technology Committee on the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA).
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, laid out a series of tough questions about what might happen if the GWSA passes:
Rep. Scheuermann: Could the Secretary (of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources) propose an amendment that will be adopted to increase the gas tax by 20 cents a gallon in the state of Vermont? And then obviously the legislature doesn’t vote on it. Is that a problem?
Attorney General Donovan: Let’s research that and get back to you.
Rep. Scheuermann: If there is a problem legally, I’m worried about us (the legislature) ceding our authority on public policy matters such as these and delegating our authority and responsibility to the judiciary and the executive. How much authority are we giving them?
Attorney General Donovan: Let’s research that question on the revenue base and get back to you.
“Let’s research that and get back to you” isn’t the most reassuring phrase. Which is why Rep. Scheuermann’s question is a good one.
After all, a series of carbon tax proposals have been made in the past few years, funded by environmental groups from across Vermont. And yet, they have all been so unpopular that not one has come up for a vote in the Legislature. This bill could give the Agency of Natural Resources the authority to inflict a carbon tax on Vermont. Removing responsibility from our elected legislators is the surest way to make them unaccountable: “I didn’t vote for the carbon tax, ANR implemented it!”
Donovan made it clear that he was in favor of the legislation. Time and again throughout his testimony, Donovan made it clear that he supported the GWSA:
“We need to be ambitious on this. We are not setting up the government for failure.”
“Putting government’s feet to fire, in a way that prevents extreme liability.”
“It’s not going to bankrupt the state. We can’t be scared to act because we’re afraid of lawsuits.”
“This is a good bill. Know that we’ll be defending the government when the state gets sued. That’s how the system works.”
Rep. Scheuermann was most concerned about Vermont’s Legislature ceding constitutional legislative authority to the Agency of Natural Resources, part of the executive branch in Vermont’s government. However, Donovan’s comments reveal the disturbing extent to which Vermont’s executive branch in general has asserted itself in the process of making laws. Donovan himself serves in the executive branch under Gov. Phil Scott.
Donovan told the committee that “we (read: you legislators) can’t be scared to act,” by “putting government’s feet to fire,” emphasizing how the GWSA is a “good bill” which is “not going to bankrupt the state.”
According to the AG’s website, “the Attorney General is the chief law enforcement officer in the state.” Donovan’s job is to enforce the law, not cajoling legislators into acting to control a problem that is, at most, 0.1% “Vermont’s fault” (Vermont produces 0.1% of the world’s CO2 emissions).
And yes, he did say he would happily do the bare minimum for the job: “defending the government when the state gets sued,” such as what might happen if someone didn’t think Vermont was taking the GWSA seriously enough. What are the odds that Donovan would do his “very best” at defending Vermont versus doing a job that is merely “above suspicion”? Few without law degrees would know the difference.
Donovan may soon gain the ability to hold Vermont’s “feet to the fire” himself if the GWSA passes, biases and all. And that is a very bad thing for the impartial rule of law in Vermont.
David Flemming is a policy analyst for the Ethan Allen Institute. Reprinted with permission from the Ethan Allen Institute Blog.