Lawmakers in Montpelier on March 27 moved closer to helping more low income Vermonters keep their homes warm in the winter, or they voted simply to impose more taxes on all Vermonters. Both outcomes are the result of the House Bill 439, which passed the house after a third reading in a late session with a voice vote.
Which outcome is closer to reality is a matter of perspective. Vermont House Speaker Mitzi Johnson supports the bill, and cites the Town of Milton as an example.
She said Milton has 21 subsidized projects this year, totaling a $150,000 to $200,000 investment.
“Recipients are seeing a 20 to 30 percent savings by expanding the resources there, and we’re happy to be able to double those,” she said.
Republican Representative Casey Toof voted against the bill, “Because to me this is a regressive tax on Vermonters,” he said in an email response shortly after the vote.
Toof argued that because the bill imposes a two-cent tax increase on heating oil, propane, kerosene oil, other dyed diesel plus a one percent tax on the retail sale of natural gas, it amounts to nothing more than a penalty for using fossil fuels that fails to address the issue.
“This is a tax on carbon to fund a program to reduce carbon,” he said. “It’s a carbon tax.”
The typical definition is that it taxes carbon emissions and adjusts the tax based on the amount of carbon emitted, which this tax is not.
The Wednesday night vote is just the first major step in a long process, said Rep. Mike McCarthy, who voted in favor of the bill.
“It still has a long way to go,” he said. “But the choice we made was to help keep grandmothers warmer and healthier in energy efficient homes.”
While proponents argue the bill will help Vermonters in need, opponents have worked to characterize it as onerous and heavy-handed when it comes to politicized climate change issues.
McCarthy said the expansion of the weatherization program would add 400 homes each year to a program that, as it stands, benefits 800 statewide. He also said he rejects the “carbon” label when it comes to the bill, and argued that opponents were simply trying to shape the issue in their favor.
“There were a lot of amendments on the floor before we voted,” he said, “and they were meant to try and embarrass the people who were supporting it.”
“They’re trying to kind of put the carbon label on it because it’s politically convenient,” said McCarthy. “I wish people would be clearer about the policy and not focus on the politics.”
Others, like State Representative Linda Meyers of (R) Chittenden 6-1, echo Toof’s position on the issue.
“As for weatherization, I am very much in favor of continuing weatherization efforts throughout the State,” she said. “Our climate calls for homes that support all of our residents in maintaining their warmth throughout the winter.”
But Meyers said she disagrees with the H439 path.
“There are weatherization funds throughout the FY2020 budget and I saw no need to tax those residents who are in the most need of home weatherization,” she said. “In my opinion, while H439 will increase taxes for all Vermont residents, it will hit our low and moderate income residents especially hard.”
Responding to the argument that the bill is part of “a green revolution,” McCarthy said the bill really isn’t about climate policy.
“It’s not going to change consumer behavior, he said. “What it does do is affect in the long run the amount of carbon people use. This is really about helping the people who need it most.”
The bill next moves to the Senate, where McCarthy said he expects it to pass, but explained that it could be amended heavily before coming back to the house for approval.
“The real question is if they can get the governor’s support for it,” he said, allowing that the bill could still die. “My guess is he’ll say he supports the bill but not the funding source.”
Should the bill come to fruition, it would take effect July 1.