On July 7 Energy Independent Vermont, the coalition of enviro groups headed by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), announced the findings of its statewide poll on its proposal for a Vermont carbon tax. The poll found that 63 percent of respondents supported the carbon tax, while 31 percent opposed it (six percent were undecided).
But before we take that seriously, maybe we ought to inquire into exactly what question was asked by the EIV pollsters.
Here's the question. Take a deep breath – it's one hundred words long: "The Energy Independent Vermont proposal would do the following: Establish a statewide Energy Independence Fund to help voters reduce their home heating and transportation costs and weatherize public buildings, like schools; finance the Energy Independence Fund with a carbon pollution tax paid by the companies that import oil, gas and other fossil fuels into Vermont; it would not apply to electricity; cut state taxes for all Vermonters and Vermont businesses, with additional rebates for low income Vermonters, so that we are protected from fossil fuel companies passing on their costs. Does that sound like something you would support, or oppose?"
Given the attention span of most people responding to telephone poll questions, what do you suppose came across? "New fund to help us voters – pay my heat and auto bills - tax businesses that import pollution –tax cuts for everybody." What's not to like?
Well, to start with, Merriam Webster defines "Pollution" as "the action or process of making land, water, air, etc., dirty and not safe or suitable to use". That describes emissions like sulfur dioxide, ozone, VOCs, and particulates that have indisputably harmful effects on human health. But atmospheric carbon dioxide has no negative effects on human health. We breathe it out all the time, and it is the planet's leading plant food. Nonetheless, the enviro groups battling "climate change" seized on the idea of labelling CO2 emissions "pollution" for the plain reason that pollution is bad – yuk!
Then we learn from the question that only those nasty businesses importing pollution into Vermont will suffer from the carbon pollution tax. What if those companies pass on the carbon pollution tax, in higher prices to homeowners, motorists, truckers, industry, farms, schools, and so on? The question admits that the tax will be passed on to consumers, but tells respondents that everyone will get a tax reduction to protect them from the tax-inflated energy costs. (The EIV bill specifies a reduction in the sales tax from 6% to 5%, plus selective rebates.)
Note that there wouldn't even be any higher costs for fuel oil dealers, gasoline distributors, and natural gas companies to pass on to consumers, were it not for the new tax. And note also: the question doesn't claim the tax will be "revenue neutral", because it won't. Even if the legislature were to include offsetting tax reductions to "protect us from the tax" it just increased, the proposal has a ten percent revenue skim-off to subsidize wind, solar and weatherization interests. For them, the proposal would generate tax revenues of $50 million a year by 2028, a thought that certainly has occurred to the interests that are financing the carbon tax campaign now.
Let's turn the poll question on its head. "Would you support or oppose a tax on heating oil, gasoline, diesel, natural gas and propane, to increase the cost to consumers of those products, with ninety percent of such higher costs offset by selected tax reductions, unless the legislature redirects the revenues to other programs?" I'm quite sure EIV will not be asking that question.
The five major party candidates for Governor aren't being very supportive. Republicans Phil Scott and Bruce Lisman have answered that question with a resounding No, and a promise of a veto. Democrat Matt Dunne said he preferred to fight "climate change" with a "cap and trade" plan (proposed by VPIRG and Sen. Shumlin in 2010). Democrats Sue Minter and Peter Galbraith said they wouldn't support a carbon tax just in Vermont. Like Shumlin, Dunne and Galbraith live on the New Hampshire side of the state, and are clearly sensitive to the potential migration of energy-related commerce into states that didn't enact a carbon tax.
What the EIV polling investment makes clear, along with VPIRG's summer deployment of 55 carbon tax canvassers, is that the carbon tax advocates believe that in early 2017 they will have 2-1 public support for installing their $500 million a year (in 2028) tax. That might be overly optimistic. Put the carbon tax question to your candidates for the legislature, and see how many brighten up and say "Yesss!"
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).