By John McClaughry
In July 2019 the Legislature instructed the Public Utility Commission to recommend what the Legislature must do to adopt “a multi-pronged approach to address Vermont’s greenhouse gas reduction and weatherization goals.” The PUC has now delivered its report. It can be summarized in two words: “More funding!”
“If Vermont is to make progress toward its energy and greenhouse gas emissions reductions goal and commitments, the State will need to identify appropriate, stable, and robust funding and program options outside the traditionally regulated sectors of electricity and natural gas,” the report states.
Translation: “Let’s find something to tax, to bring in the robust tax dollars required to pay, and keep on paying, for the Green agenda. More funding!”
In particular, the PUC wants a “Thermal Efficiency Benefit Charge” — more honestly described as a new state tax on heating oil, kerosene, and propane — to “provide funds for thermal efficiency programs that benefit the users of those fuels.” The report also wants to “gradually increase the [existing heating] fuel tax to benefit more low-income Vermonters.”
The PUC unsurprisingly recommends a new tax on motor fuel, to be imposed by the multi-state Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) to “achieve financial benefits for Vermont.” Those benefits would be subsidies to favored causes like electric vehicles, heat pumps, and always more home weatherization. They would be paid for with dollars collected from motor fuel users — workers, businesses, farms, schools, local governments, and the like — that are left over after the TCI organization pockets its administrative, reporting, enforcement, legal and allowance auction costs, and generous staff salaries.
Ordinary Vermonters will get from these tax increases “an investment that will leverage private capital, produce local jobs, boost the Vermont economy, and enhance the health and affordability of the state.” Oh, come on. Nobody is dull witted enough to swallow that.
Let’s look at the sequence of events here.
In 2018 the climate change movement failed to sell even an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature on enacting their carbon tax — the ESSEX Plan. They managed only to grab $120,000 to get a “decarbonization” study from a reputable national research institution, Resources For the Future.
The RFF report that arrived in January 2019 found that no imaginable level of carbon taxes would drive down CO2 emissions to Vermont’s targeted levels, and that economic welfare losses from a significant carbon tax would be offset only by imagined “climate benefits” accruing to the entire planet. That finding was a serious downer for the climate change movement.
So the movement united behind another taxpayer-financed study, undertaken by persons dependent upon the Legislature who could be trusted to make a better case for “all fuels energy efficiency” based on a carbon tax, to raise “robust” revenues to spend on the long menu of green causes.
The Legislature assigned the study to the PUC chaired by an ardent climate warrior, Anthony Z. Roisman. He was a key legal strategist for the New England Coalition Against Nuclear Pollution (i.e. “Shut Down Vermont Yankee!”), and even told the public two years ago that Vermont was facing a “Pearl Harbor moment” requiring a “wartime effort” to cope with the growing menace of climate change.
Created in 1886 to regulate railroad rates, the much-expanded role of the PUC is to strike a balance between protecting consumers against monopoly overcharges, and letting regulated companies earn enough on invested capital to continue as going businesses. But in the past 10 years, the Legislature has made the PUC into its own reliable, like-minded manager and think tank on energy and climate matters.
Thus when the Legislature wants to force Vermonters to engage in an all-out war against the menace of climate change, covets millions of taxpayer dollars to finance the cornucopia of spending urged by the Environmental Action Network, and can’t muster a majority that dares to vote for the carbon taxes needed to finance that spending, it turns to the friendly PUC to provide the cover for the tax raising. More funding!
That’s why this latest PUC report is so forthright about declaring that it “joins the chorus of voices seeking climate action.” The PUC is doing its part by announcing that Vermont can’t meet its ambitious carbon dioxide emissions reduction goals — made mandatory by the Global Warming Solutions Act passed last October over Gov. Phil Scott’s veto — without more funding.
A useful citizen response would be to tell Gov. Scott and the legislators to forget about jacking up motor fuel and heating oil costs to feed a bunch of clamoring special interests at the expense of everyone else trying to stay above water during the pandemic. Otherwise, this determined climate change advocacy machine is going to keep grinding on until one or another carbon tax scheme is hung around everyone’s neck.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.