Kathleen James | My 2 cents: Fueling a smart climate strategy

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I live in an old farmhouse, built sometime around the Civil War. Though it's been renovated many times, the best investment I've ever made in my home — hands down — happened about a dozen years ago, when I took out a small loan to weatherize it.

A skilled crew spent several days buttoning up my drafty farmhouse: weather-stripping the doors, caulking the windows, sealing leaks, spraying foam in the basement, and insulating the attic and crawl spaces. When winter rolled around, I no longer had to crank my thermostat to 82 degrees just to take the chill off. Since then, I've saved hundreds of dollars each winter on fuel oil, earning back every dime I spent.

Since the 1970s, Vermont has made similar upgrades to thousands of homes through its statewide Weatherization Assistance Program. The program targets low-income Vermonters and helps them to reduce their heating costs while living in homes that are warmer, healthier and safer. With energy savings of up to $500 per year, these vulnerable families now have more to spend on food, medical care and childcare.

Last week, I voted for H.439, a bill that would increase WAP funding by about $4.5 million per year. This boosts our annual low-income weatherization investment by 50 percent and increases the number of homes we can upgrade each year by 450 (from 900 to 1,350). It'll also create about 60 new jobs in Vermont's fastest-growing sector — clean energy — through WAP agencies and their subcontractors.

So where's the money coming from? That's where the debate on the House floor got hot. Since the 1990s, WAP has been funded by a fuel tax. H.439 would double that existing tax from 2 cents to 4 cents per gallon on heating oil, propane, kerosene and dyed diesel, while raising the gross receipts tax on natural gas from 0.75 to 1 percent, and on coal from 0.75 to 1.5 percent.

"House Votes to Double Heating Fuel Tax" makes a pretty gripping headline (I'm a journalist, I should know). But what does that mean for the average Vermont household? At $2.75 per gallon and 750 gallons per year, that's an additional $15 on an annual bill of $2,062. And a two-penny increase is far less than the price fluctuations in fuel oil, which can rise or drop by 50 cents to a dollar per gallon from year to year.

During two days of floor debate, we also argued about whether the tax is regressive, meaning it hits the poorest households the hardest. Yes, that's true: The tax rate would be 4 cents per gallon regardless of your income. But as the direct beneficiaries of WAP, the poorest households also have the most to gain from the program's expansion.

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In its July 2018 final report to Gov. Phil Scott, the Vermont Climate Action Commission concluded that "global climate change is a fundamental threat to Vermont, to our economy, environment, and way of life." The evidence is all around us — in shorter winters with less snow, rising temperatures, more frequent and intense storms, flooding, invasive species and tick-borne illnesses. And we're falling behind in the fight: Vermont's greenhouse gas emissions are rising, not falling.

According to the Climate Commission report, the heating of buildings with fossil fuels accounts for approximately 30 percent of Vermont's total energy consumption and 24 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions.

The commission recommends low-income weatherization as a top priority that yields "significant economic return on investment."

WAP is a smart, cost-effective program that, overall, saves Vermont more than it costs.

H.439 passed the House by a vote of 81-60 on March 26. It'll now proceed to the Senate, where the discussion will continue.

If this bill becomes law, my $15 could translate to $500 in energy savings for a low-income family, a weatherized home that burns 30 percent less fossil fuel, and good-paying jobs in the green economy. While any tax increase should give a legislator pause, that's a pretty solid investment in a long-running, successful statewide program with a meaningful return.

Kathleen James represents the Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate and part of Sunderland in Bennington-4 district in the Vermont House of Representatives. She serves on the Education Committee and is an active member of the Climate Caucus.


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