Democratic gubernatorial candidates at a recent forum, from left, Ethan Sonneborn, Brenda Siegel, Christine Hallquist, and James Ehlers
The Democratic candidates for governor of Vermont expressed varying levels of interest in imposing a tax on carbon Wednesday during a debate on Vermont Public Radio.
While each was quick to qualify his or her support, their statements will provide fresh fodder to the Vermont Republican Party, which has for years enthusiastically assailed Democrats who support such a plan. Proponents argue that a several-cent tax on gasoline, diesel, propane and home heating fuel would reduce the state's carbon emissions; opponents, including Republican Gov. Phil Scott, say it would drive up prices for consumers and make Vermont less affordable.
“I would be open to exploring it as governor,” said 14-year-old candidate Ethan Sonneborn, who was the first to receive the question from VPR reporter and moderator Peter Hirschfeld. “I’m absolutely not ruling it out.”
Christine Hallquist, former CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative, was similarly evasive. She called such taxes "one of the most effective policy mechanisms you can have for mitigating carbon," while emphasizing the effect they can have on those with lower incomes. “It deserves a deep dive, but we have to be very careful how it impacts those who are living on the economic margins as well as recruiting other states [to participate].”
Declining to give a yes or no answer, she insisted that it “needs to be a collective and collaborative decision with the legislature and the people of Vermont.”
Candidate James Ehlers, executive director of the conservation group Lake Champlain International, expressed more definitive support, saying, “I do think a carbon tax is the right path to follow.” But, he added, “It’s extremely regressive as has been proposed.” He suggested he’d “ask the biggest consumers in this state to pay their fair share.”
Brenda Siegel, executive director and founder of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, said that “carbon pricing is essential as part of our way that we reduce carbon emissions in our state,” but stipulated that the plan would need to make accommodations for “people in poverty and [with] moderate incomes.”
When the candidates were given a chance to interrogate one another toward the end of the debate, Siegel asked the hardest-hitting questions. She challenged Ehlers, who has emphasized his role as an "adviser" to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) throughout the campaign, to clarify the nature of that position.
Ehlers referred her to a statement from Sanders' office, which explains that Ehlers served on a veterans’ advisory committee from 2013 until 2015 and on an environmental advisory committee before that.
"Bernie convenes these advisory committees so Vermonters who are engaged on the issues could share their insights with the senator," Sanders spokesman Josh Miller-Lewis said in the statement. "Bernie very much appreciated James’ participation and input on both committees, along with the many other Vermonters who have volunteered their time. James was not employed by the Senate office."
When Siegel suggested that Ehlers had falsely portrayed himself as a current adviser, Ehlers responded, "One of the other roles that an adviser serves is in a quiet way, which I’ve been doing for years."