Editor’s note: This commentary is by Steve Geller, who is the executive director of Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA), one of five community action agencies in the state, and the president of their statewide association, the Vermont Community Action Partnership.
The Vermont community action agencies offer a wide range of programs to help Vermonters with low incomes cope with and lift themselves out of poverty, including crisis fuel assistance, homelessness prevention/housing assistance, weatherization, home repair, Head Start and child care, economic and workforce development, job readiness and training, asset building, transportation, and many other services.
In that capacity, the community action agencies are excited to be part of the Energy Independent Vermont’s coalition and campaign to enable Vermont to take a meaningful step toward addressing the issues related to global warming. This problem affects all of us, and as with so many other problems, it hits residents with lower incomes hardest because they have the fewest resources to cope with it. The increased frequency and severity of extreme weather like Tropical Storm Irene and “Superstorm” Sandy is widely viewed by scientists as an inevitable consequence of global warming. In Vermont, Irene created widespread devastation, but it was low-income families in flood zones and mobile homes, and the elderly and disabled on fixed incomes who suffered the most. They often didn’t have the needed insurance, they lacked the savings, and they didn’t have the resources to get back on their feet. Some have still not recovered from the impact.
It’s important not only that all Vermonters, including those with low incomes, be part of the solution presented in the proposed pollution tax, but also that no one suffer undue hardship paying it.
Low-income residents are also most affected by dependence on fossil fuels. Without the credit or cash reserves to pre-buy at the lowest rates, they often pay the highest prices for their heating fuel. They live in the oldest, least-energy-efficient homes, so they never have enough money to heat them adequately and therefore are at higher risk for hypothermia, stroke, heart attack, asthma and other health issues. They also drive some of the oldest, biggest gas guzzlers most in need of repair. And low-income families are often the last to benefit from new cost-saving technology like electric vehicles and renewable energy.
In light of the above, it’s important not only that all Vermonters, including those with low incomes, be part of the solution presented in the proposed pollution tax, but also that no one suffer undue hardship paying it. To a large extent, that will happen from the provision that most of the tax will come back to taxpayers in the form of an income-based tax credit. But because low-income families are already penalized unfairly by having the highest energy burden, the Energy Independent Vermont proposal takes this into account by mitigating what would otherwise be the disproportionately harmful effects of the tax on low-income residents and by using a portion of the tax revenue to provide sustainable funding for programs that help reduce low-income households’ dependence on fossil fuel, such as the Low-Income Weatherization Assistance Program.
It’s time to take action; and this proposal is the right action for Vermont to take. It will help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels – thus helping to increase our level of energy independence and decrease the risk of potential climate disaster for all of us – while at the same time protecting the most vulnerable Vermonters from shouldering an unfair share of the burden. For those reasons, the Vermont Community Action Partnership and the Vermont community action agencies are strong supporters of Energy Independent Vermont’s pollution tax proposal.