Another view: Not time for a carbon tax

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The carbon tax debate has gotten silly. Partisans, touting economic collapse on one side and environmental calamity on the other, have resorted to an ancient tactic usually reserved for whipping up public support for war: demonize the other side and paint them as being ignorant sub-humans. Vermonters are beginning to grow weary of this style of discourse.

At the risk of befuddling extremists on both sides, let me suggest you each have a valid point. To carbon tax proponents: I agree our climate is changing and, at the very least, humankind has contributed to the speed at which that change is occurring. For that reason, coupled with the knowledge that fossil fuels are a finite resource, I agree we must move away from fossil fuels. To carbon tax opponents: I agree that Vermont's economy is hanging by a thread and a tax on our most basic fuel source threatens our economic recovery. With those concessions, let's talk about the issue and jettison the hyperbole.

The proposal would impose a tax on all forms of fossil fuel purchased in Vermont. It would increase incrementally to $100 per ton in 2027. The intent is to push people away from fossil fuel consumption by making it more expensive. It presumes Vermonters can and will switch to renewably produced energy. Proponents contend it would raise enough revenue to weatherize homes and allow us to lower taxes in other areas, essentially relieving any burden it produces.

Now let's consider some hard facts. First, only those purchasing fossil fuel in Vermont will pay this tax. Second, Vermont geographically is a very small, mostly rural state. Third, the bulk of our working population must travel to work. Fourth, Vermont is yet again facing a budget shortfall in 2017 — this time worth $60 million. Finally, Vermont's population is just over 600,000 souls, a sizable portion of whom are struggling financially. Approximately two hundred thousand are Medicaid eligible. Vermont has a shrinking workforce with an outward migration of young people, and tax-wise is currently listed as one of the worst states to retire in. One of the few positives in our current economic reality, as recently noted by economist Tom Kavet, is that our lower-than-normal fuel costs saved approximately $700 million last year.

The cost of electric passenger vehicles remains too high for too many Vermonters. In the case of heavy-duty vehicles (school busses, freight trucks, garbage trucks, farm equipment, etc.) electric propulsion either doesn't exist or remains in prototype form. Statewide renewable-based mass transit systems do not exist. Our transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) depends on fossil fuel taxes that would disappear if this proposal works the way it is intended. Vermont's large stock of oil-heated homes will be expensive to modify. The price of virtually everything fossil fuel related, from school bus contracts to transported food stuffs to basic construction, must inevitably rise to accommodate rising fuel costs that cannot be avoided.

So how will struggling Vermonters adapt? Sheer necessity will force some to curtail other important expenses. Some will purchase their fuel out of state. Will government use new carbon tax revenues to help them? It is hard to believe our opiate epidemic, educational system and crumbling infrastructure will take a back seat to weatherizing private homes.

And in the end, what would we accomplish? Even the Shumlin administration acknowledges our small population's best renewable efforts will have no registerable impact on climate change. The best we can hope for is that we set an example. Perhaps that would satiate those seeking to set a moral course. But that course will not be set at the expense of those vilified big oil companies; it will be borne by the average Vermonter as those taxes raise prices for our most essential needs.

For all the above reasons, this is neither the time nor the place for a carbon tax.

Joe Benning is a Vermont State Senator, representing the Caledonia-Orange District.


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