By Guy Page
H.439, a bill to double the tax on most home heating fuels, passed the Vermont House Tuesday afternoon after lengthy debate. It was opposed by most Republicans and independents and supported by most Democrats and Progressives.
Revenue from raising the existing 2 cents per gallon tax to 4 cents would increase state funding for home weatherization. H.439 passed the House Ways & Means Committee by a narrow 6-5 margin. Friday, it was debated on the House floor but action was postponed.
During a break today before the vote, several legislators compared H.439 to a carbon tax. “It’s misguided,” Rep. Patrick Seymour, R-Sutton, said. “I’ve heard some people say ‘it’s only four cents.’ But on a 200-gallon tank that’s eight dollars. I know some people who don’t have two cents to rub together.”
Seymour, a 22-year-old who was raised on a Northeast Kingdom dairy farm and is a devotee of free market economist Milton Friedman, also questions whether a state program is the most cost-effective way to deliver weatherization to Vermonters.
Rep. George Till, D-Underhill/Jericho, led the floor discussion by saying that heating fuel market costs fluctuate from year to year, and this tax won’t be significantly noticed by fuel buyers. Till, a doctor, also said home weatherization is a health issue because unweatherized homes can cause hypothermia.
Rep. Mary Sullivan, D-Burlington, noted Vermont is not meeting its statutory greenhouse gas reduction goals. “Study after study shows that weatherization is the best way [to reduce emissions] by far. … We have great goals, we have everything but action items. This bill is an action item.”
Rep. Frances “Topper” McFaun, R-Barre Town, said, “What I see happening here is something I don’t like. We’re attacking a commodity, and we’re passing it [the cost] on to the very people that we’re trying to help. … This is not the way to fund it. We need to find another way.“
“I would urge the body to vote against this. You are doubling our tax. Think again! Find a better way to finance this. Don’t put the burden on the very people we are trying to help,” Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, an opponent of the bill, said. Charging low-income Vermonters more to stay warm “is the Achilles heel and you are seeing it right now.”
“You are doubling our tax,” Rep. Browning repeated. “You are doubling a tax on one of the necessities of life. This is a regressive tax, and you are doubling it.”
Supporter Rep. Avram Patt, D-Worcester, called weatherization the “low hanging fruit” on emissions reduction. Supporter Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, said people don’t mind being taxed if they know what it’s being spent for, and people support weatherization.
“This is a small piece of a carbon tax. Do you believe this could be called a carbon tax?” Opponent Rep. Brian Smith, R-Derby, asked bill sponsor Jim Masland, D-Thetford. Negative, Masland said. Carbon taxes are meant to discourage consumption, and “I’m going to heat my house whether I have to pay a carbon tax or not,” and weatherization will help reduce carbon emissions, he said.
Smith also said the Legislature would do better to find a way to cut state spending and allocate savings to weatherization.
“It’s money that will be well spent. … This is the green economy, this is what we are talking about,” Rep. Jean O’Sullivan, D-Burlington, said.
But for Jim Harrison, H.439 is just too close to being a carbon tax that he told his constituents he would oppose. “If I was asked once this fall I was asked a hundred times, ‘do you support a carbon tax?’” Whether or not this bill is technically a carbon tax, “I said I would vote no, and I will vote no.”
“The reason this isn’t a carbon tax is that a carbon tax is a tax on carbon content, this is a tax on fuel,” supporter Rep. Scott Campbell, D-St. Johnsbury, said.
“Remember, thousands of Vermonters work in businesses related to fuel,” Rep. James Gregoire, R-Fairfield, said.
Before the final vote, a move to send the bill to another committee failed on a roll call vote. The bill now goes to the Senate. It is not known whether Gov. Phil Scott, a strong opponent of carbon taxation, would sign the bill.
In other Statehouse news, H.418, to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections, last week failed to progress from the Government Operations Committee before the March 15 crossover date. Thus it cannot be passed into law this year unless legislative leaders vote to suspend the rules to do so — an act that is considered unlikely. It could be taken up next year, the second year of the biennium.
If it had passed, 16- and 17-year-olds would have been allowed to vote in all municipal elections, including (if retail marijuana bill S.54 passes) the decision on whether or not to allow retail marijuana stores within town limits. However, in merged school districts they would not have been allowed to vote on school issues including budget and school board members.
Also, the House Appropriations Committee cut funds to pay sheriffs to supervise mentally ill patients in Vermont emergency rooms, VTDigger reported. In addition to addressing some regulatory concerns, the state will save $268,000 by cutting the line item.
Marijuana legalization will only add financial pressures on Vermont’s emergency rooms, if Colorado’s experience is any guide. A March 25 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that the rise in marijuana use in Colorado since the state legalized the drug has led to increased emergency room visits. The study found that 9,973 marijuana-related emergency room visits occurred from 2012-2016, more than triple the number that occurred prior to legalization.
Additionally, the study found that 10.7 percent of visits at University of Colorado Health hospital were due to the ingestion of high potency marijuana edibles. These conclusions track a recent Lancet medical journal study finding that consumption of high potency THC caused half of Amsterdam’s new ER visits and 30 percent of London’s new ER visits.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.