Vermont Republicans think they’ve found the chink in Democrats’ political armor. And they’re trying to turn a proposed tax on carbon emissions into an electoral liability for Democrats in 2016.
An online video produced by the Vermont GOP is less than a week old. But it already has more than 16,000 views on Facebook. And it’s central claim will become a centerpiece of Republican’s bid to pick up House and Senate seats in 2016.
“Last year, Democrats lobbied for an 89-cent per gallon tax on gasoline and home-heating fuels,” a female narrator says, as prices on a gas pump spin higher. “This so-called carbon tax hurts Vermonters.”
Expect to hear plenty more about the carbon tax from Republicans between now and November – the online ad is the first in a series on the carbon tax.
Democrats, however, say the accusations are wholly unfounded.
“You know, I certainly hope that Vermonters are looking past the scare tactics of the 88-cent gas tax and that boogie monster that is being portrayed out there,” says House Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas.
Copeland Hanzas says the attack misses the mark on two fronts. First off, she says, the GOP is mischaracterizing the nature of the legislation introduced by Democrats during the last biennium.
The bill would have slowly ratcheted up to that 89-cent per-gallon surcharge over 10 years. And it would have reallocated the revenue back to Vermonters, in the form of tax rebates, or investments in renewable energy or energy efficiency.
More importantly, Copeland Hanzas says the bill isn’t going anywhere anyway. So Vermonters opposed to the concept have nothing to worry about.
“I don’t see it getting traction in Vermont right now,” she says.
Christina Amestoy, communications director for the Vermont Democratic Party, seconds the notion that Democratic leaders in the Statehouse have no plans to pursue a carbon-pollution tax.
“And it sounds like the Vermont GOP is just running a campaign against an interest group rather than our Vermont democratic candidates,” Amestoy says.
Jeff Bartley, executive director of the Vermont Republican Party, says voters shouldn’t believe Democrats for a second.
“The Democrats out there saying, ‘no, no, no, we’re not in favor of it.’ But their buddy VPIRG are out there going door to door … trying to get people to sign up in support of this carbon tax,” Bartley says.
Bartley is referring to the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy group looking to build statewide support for a tax on carbon pollution. The organization says it’s the most effective policy available to curb demand for greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels, and that it would help the economy by increasing demand for locally produced renewable energy.
It’s a perspective shared by at least some Democratic lawmakers.
Montpelier Rep. Mary Hooper says she can’t speak for all Democrats. But Hooper says she fully intends to pursue some kind of carbon-pollution tax over the next two years.
“The issue of climate change is the most profound issue of our time, and I personally believe that we have a moral imperative to act,” Hooper says.
Hooper says the concept of a carbon-pollution tax has wide support among the 40-member Climate Caucus in Montpelier, which is made up of Democrats and Progressives. She says the proposal pursued in the next biennium might not look like the bill introduced previously. But she says Vermont has a responsibility to act.
“I think that we have to, we have to step up to it, and show leadership in this area,” Hooper says.
Whether supporters of the carbon-tax policy will succeed is another question altogether.
Jamaica Rep. Oliver Olsen is an Independent now, though he used to be a Republican. Olsen serves on the House Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which was assigned to review the carbon-tax legislation. He says Democratic leadership made it clear at the outset of the 2016 session where the bill was headed.
“That particular piece of legislation was declared DOA at the start of the session,” Olsen says. Olsen says he expects a similar prognosis in 2017.
“I think Democrats in leadership positions understand that as a practical matter, it’s not a feasible policy at the state level,” Olsen says.
Adopting a carbon-pollution tax at the regional level, however, might prove more appealing to Democratic leadership. Copeland Hanzas says that if neighboring states are willing to come on board, the strategic calculus could shift.
“When enough of them are supportive of it, and it happens regionally within New England at least, I think that we could move forward on it,” Copeland Hanzas says.
Copeland Hanzas says she doesn’t think that’ll happen anytime soon.
Paul Burns, executive director of VPRIG, will be looking to expedite the timeline.
Burns says polling commissioned by his organization shows majority support among Vermonters for a proposal that increases taxes on fossil fuels, then redistributes the money in ways that aid individuals and businesses, and stimulate the renewable-energy and home-efficiency economy.
One day soon, according to Burns, support for a tax on carbon pollution won’t be so politically toxic, even if it does mean a spike on gasoline prices.
“Our job at VPIRG as well as our coalition partners will be to go out and prove that people are ready for this policy,” Burns says.