A carbon tax by any other name

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Like zombies on television, the carbon tax, once left for dead, has returned from Montpelier's political graveyard to torment the living.

Rep. Selene Coburn (D-Burlington) sent us a 825-word essay on Monday about four separate statehouse proposals intended to improve the environment, redistribute tax revenue and discourage the use of fossil fuels. It was written by the state reps who proposed the plans.

The proposals would presumably create vast sums of revenue that could, depending on the plan, help pay for education, eliminate the sales tax, bolster earned income tax credits or maybe even find their way directly to your wallet as a quarterly dividend check.

Of those 825 words, two are notably absent: "carbon tax."

The lawmakers used other phrases, such as "a price on carbon pollution," to describe how these grand plans would be funded.

When they don't tell you it's a carbon tax, it's probably a carbon tax.

Sorry, but Vermonters aren't quite so easily fooled. So let's not pretend that the money will magically fall out of the sky. You'll pay for it, at the pump.

The lawmakers are correct in this regard: The Trump administration is running roughshod over the environment, and its budget proposals could do millions of dollars in damage to the state budget. The time to act may come sooner than we realize.

Where they get it wrong is declaring that these four bills are progressive, rather than regressive, because "low- and middle-income Vermonters — who typically burn fewer fossil fuels than their wealthier neighbors — would pay less in fees, while all Vermonters would benefit from lower taxes." The assertion that Vermonters could "choose for themselves if and how they would like to reduce carbon emissions" also rings hollow.

Here in rural Southern Vermont, public transportation is limited and so are our choices. If we want to keep our jobs, we must drive or ride to work much of the year.

It's easy to imagine how a low- or middle-income household working at least two jobs, and heating an older house with an inefficient furnace, might burn more fossil fuel commuting to work and staying warm in winter than a wealthier neighbor.

And that family would pay a larger percentage of its limited income on fuel when the oil companies inevitably raise prices to recoup the higher cost of doing business under these plans.

That's a dictionary definition of regressive.

Sure, the proposals might also lower sales or income taxes, but what good would that do if the state was taking the same money out of the other pocket?

If the proposals are not as outrageously regressive as the previous carbon tax plan — which would have eventually raised the price of gasoline 88 cents per gallon and fuel oil by $1 per gallon — then we're listening. The proposal by Rep. Martin LaLonde (D-South Burlington), which would funnel carbon tax revenue into the education fund, is particularly intriguing for its potential to drive down property taxes.

Do not mistake our skepticism about the carbon tax as a defense of the petrochemical industry. Climate change is real and Vermont must remain a leader in replacing fossil fuels and preserving the environment.

But making the working poor pay disproportionately for the solution to our fossil fuel dependence is simply unfair.

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