A proposed carbon tax, intended to change people's energy-consumption habits, is causing a furor in the Vermont governor's race, even though legislative leaders say the tax isn't headed for passage in the near future.
The Vermont Republican Party and the two declared Republican candidates for governor have in the last week jumped all over a new carbon tax proposed by several Democratic and Progressive legislators.
There’s a wrinkle, though, which has gotten little attention. The tax isn’t happening. Not next year and perhaps not ever, unless other states do the same.
“Even those who are advocating for a carbon tax know this is a multi-year effort,” said Rep. Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier), chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, whose panel would have to approve the bill. “Whatever happens in the future, Vermont can’t go it alone.”
Klein said legislative leaders have been clear with advocates of the tax that it would be premature for Vermont to pass the proposed legislation. If they do pass such a tax, the goal will be to lower other taxes by an equal amount, he said, with the intention of reducing people's use of fossil fuels. No other states have such a tax, and Klein maintains Vermont could only manage it if neighboring states also adopted the tax.
The Digger article set off a firestorm of comments from Republicans, who are giving the impression the tax is on the fast track to passage. Whether the tax ever reaches a committee room for a hearing next year, Republicans have found an issue that’s resonating among their supporters, whose eyes widen at the prospect of an 88-cent per gallon increase in the price of gas.
Vermont Republican Party chair David Sunderland this week sent out two emails on the issue. The first, sent Wednesday to supporters, said, “Vermont Democrats are now rushing to develop a new, highly regressive (would hurt the poor and middle class the most) tax on gasoline that they plan to extend to other forms of energy like home heating fuels.”
A day later, Sunderland sent a news release calling on Democrats to denounce the tax. He noted that Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington), a candidate for lieutenant governor, is a sponsor of the carbon-tax legislation, but also called on candidates for governor to condemn the proposal.
Bruce Lisman, a Republican candidate for governor, followed up Thursday with a news release. “Vermont republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lisman today announced his strong opposition to the new carbon tax being proposed by Democrats in the Vermont Legislature,” the release said.
“This legislation is very bad for hard working Vermonters and their families. It would create higher taxes and greater economic uncertainty in the state by raising the tax on gasoline by a staggering 88-cents per gallon,” Lisman said.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, also a Republican candidate for governor, raised the issue on Facebook last Monday, asking supporters what they thought of the tax. Within four days, he got 222 responses, almost all of them slamming the tax.
Democrats, including Klein, have done little to defuse the carbon-tax bomb. A year ago, Klein announced he did plan to pass the carbon-tax legislation out of his committee and send it to the House floor for a vote in 2015. Klein noted this week that House Speaker Shap Smith, now a Democratic candidate for governor, quickly nixed that plan. “A year later, I think the subject is better known in Vermont with more support. Still, it has a long way to go before it's ready for prime time,” he said.
Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, meanwhile, have been mum on the topic, just letting the misunderstanding grow around them.