By Guy Page
Even before the Vermont House of Representatives voted this week to double the fuel tax to boost revenue for low-income weatherization, the House tax committee had already decided to raise next year’s weatherization revenue by $850,000.
Here’s how it happened: the House tax committee (aka Ways and Means) recently approved H.541, a revenue-finding bill. Among other measures it expands the payer base for the 2-cent per gallon fuel tax, created in 2016 to tax heating fuel sold only to homes and businesses. H.541 would assess the tax on all heating fuel customers, including churches, nonprofits, schools and municipalities. Fuel tax revenue funds a state program to weatherize low-income homes. H.541 has Gov. Phil Scott’s support. It is expected to pass.
The fuel tax brought in $10.3 million each year in 2018 and 2019 and is projected to reap as much in 2020, according to a Feb. 11 VT DCF report to Ways and Means. The payer base expansion in H.541 alone would add $850,000 to current weatherization revenue.
But House leaders, seeking even more revenue, brought tax-rate doubling H.439 to the floor Tuesday and Wednesday. Lengthy debate and several roll-call votes ensued. Outnumbered opponents pleaded for supporters to spare low-income Vermonters by finding another funding source other than doubling the tax on a wintertime necessity like heating fuel.
Absent from the floor discussion was the fact that Ways and Means had already hit up Vermont churchgoers, nonprofit donors, and town and school voters — including households that include all three — for almost $1 million in added fuel tax revenue.
H.439 passed the House Wednesday. But the fuel tax fight isn’t over. Speaking of H.439, Scott told press Wednesday, “Raising a regressive tax like this … is moving in the wrong direction, and I hope the Senate will agree. It’s so regressive. It hurts the people we’re trying to help.”
Scott didn’t use the word “veto.” But if he’s thinking it, H.439 backers should be concerned. The bill gathered only 81 yes votes at second reading. Overriding a veto requires 100 votes. The Senate has introduced its own bill, S.171. While more explicit in its carbon reduction goals than H.439, it offers essentially the same level of new taxation.
A family of four can earn up to $54,000 and still qualify for low-income weatherization assistance. Yet H.439 offers no low-income protection for heating fuel buyers faced with the choice of staying warm or paying for other necessities. A family of four, regardless of earnings, will still be on the hook for an extra $8 every time they fill up a 200 gallon fuel tank. If financially-pressed homeowners turn to other fuels, one likely outcome is more smog. Since July 1, 2018, all heating oil sold in Vermont has had ultra-low sulfur content and is virtually smog-free. The same cannot be said for a popular alternative — wood burned in traditional woodstoves.
Yesterday a climate caucus member from a prosperous Chittenden County community was heard to say in the Statehuse cloak room, “It’s so hard to get anything done about climate change in this building.” Yet many climate-minded legislators seem fixed on remedies that most impact older, rural and low-income Vermonters: fossil-fuel divestment of the state’s already-challenged pension fund; direct carbon taxation that would fall most heavily on poorer rural Vermonters who already spend a disproportionate amount of income on transportation and staying warm; subsidizing solar power and EV infrastructure favored by wealthier; and now, doubling what fuel dealer Shane Cota calls the “warmth tax.” And yet many of these legislators have spurned low-carbon power generators like Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, which also paid millions into state coffers for energy efficiency, including weatherization.
Virtually everyone speaking on the floor of the House this week wanted the state to help low-income people weatherize their homes to save money and reduce carbon emissions. Opponents objected to making other cash-strapped, highly taxed Vermonters pay for it. They said, “find another funding source.” Here’s one idea: a 2017 Seven Days report found that the 2018 budget called for 68 studies. Summer studies cost money in per-diems for legislators and expert consultant’s fees. No doubt many of these studies are valuable, but some are created “just to kick the can down the road,” Sen. Dick Sears told Seven Days.
The Legislature is also besieged with bills that would create new, semi-autonomous boards and commissions to oversee the marijuana industry, fair policing, etc.. In many cases, the new boards would simply add one more layer of government oversight to existing infrastructure. Their creation is seen more as tax-payer funded recognition of special interest/legislative political will, rather than as meeting a pressing need that is currently unserved by any other state agency.
If the Legislature needs a few million more dollars for weatherization, perhaps saying no to a few expensive studies or new commissions would be a good place to start. It might not please special interest groups and paid consultants, but it might make taxpaying citizens feel warm and fuzzy, inside and out.
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.