By John McClaughry
The House-passed heating fuel tax bill (H.439) is now in the Senate Finance Committee, but the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee is busy crafting its own version (S.171). That version offers the same heating oil and propane tax increases approved by the House, doubling the rates to 4 cents per gallon. But it goes the House one better (or worse, depending if you’re paying). The House bill raised the gross receipts tax on natural gas by a third, from 0.75 percent to 1.0 percent. The Senate bill would double that rate to 1.5 percent.
The House bill contained no urgent “findings.” It just raised the tax rates that feed the weatherization program. The Senate bill leads off by declaring grandly that we need to impose more fuel taxes “to help our State meet its greenhouse gas reduction and weatherization goals, thereby addressing climate change.”
The Senate bill recites Vermont’s futility in attempting to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 25 percent below a1990 baseline by 2012, a goal set by a law passed in 2006. By 2015 we were emitting 16 percent above the baseline, and by now we’re probably 20 percent above. Therefore we must act boldly to suppress carbon combustion!
A year ago the solution was the ESSEX Plan, to hammer Vermonters with a $240 million a year carbon tax by 2026. Its backers believed that would drive people away from relying on carbon fuels for heating, transportation and businesses.
The ESSEX Plan sank like a stone, so now there’s a new strategy to reach the same goal. It’s “carbon tax 1 percent a time,” hatched by a shadowy group called the Regulatory Assistance Project. RAP’s principals are former state employees who ran the Public Service Department and the Public Utility Commission.
Their mantra is “strategies to de-carbonize Vermont and address climate change.” That means if Vermonters won’t accept a painful carbon tax, persuade the Legislature to spend money on popular programs, and levy small and relatively painless taxes on carbon fuels to pay for the expansion.
The program that will consume the new fuel tax revenues, home weatherization, is a sound idea when it yields energy savings greater than the expense of weatherizing. But with the additional $4.6 million from raising the fuel taxes, the government programs can make this offer to 400 qualified homeowners: “We’ll weatherize your house so you can save 150 to 230 gallons of heating oil each winter. That’s $600, year after year, and it all goes into your pocket, because all but maybe $40 of it will come from doubling the heating fuel taxes on somebody else! You can spend your $560 on whatever you want!”
It’s time that deal was modified to read “you’ll pay us half of your savings so we can double the number of homes we can weatherize.” Barring that modification, the increased fuel tax free-handout offer should be sent to the recycling box.
The Natural Resources and Energy Committee is also deliberating on a really radical bill called the Global Warming Solutions Act (S.173). This bill would require that Vermonters reduce their carbon dioxide emissions from electricity, transportation and buildings to 25 percent below the 1990 benchmark by 2025. And how would that fantastic result be made to happen?
The secretary of Natural Resources would be directed to adopt and implement rules governing anything and everything to drive carbon dioxide emissions down below where they were 35 years ago. No legislator would vote on these rules.
And how would they be enforced? Not only the attorney general, but “any person” would be authorized to bring a civil suit against a rule breaker, to get an injunction, punitive damages and costs and attorney’s fees.
This heralds a Green Police State, enforced against anyone who uses any kind of fossil fuel above some bureaucratic allowance. It would be a permanent full employment plan for the battalion of bureaucrats needed to contrive, manage and enforce the rules, and a never-ending gold mine for the legal eagles at the Conservation Law Foundation, plus some climate warrior who doesn’t like you.
A better plan? Recognize what Resources for the Future concluded in its $120,000 study: There is no level of carbon taxation that will force Vermonters to meet the hopelessly unachievable CO2 emissions goals announced in 2006. Stop trying to sneak carbon taxes in 1 percent at a time. Make people receiving big weatherization savings pay at least half of the cost of the improvements that produce the savings.
And never for one minute entertain the idea of giving unelected bureaucrats the awesome power to control all our uses of carbon based fuels, just to show the world that Vermont is doing its (utterly undetectable) part to defeat the supposed menace of climate change. Or for any other reason.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.