Editor’s note: This commentary is by John McClaughry, the vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.
The battle lines have been drawn on the state’s political landscape, and they are somewhat different than in previous years.
Traditionally, Democratic legislators have favored taxing and spending to benefit members of their electoral coalition, such as unionized workers, environmentalists, lower income families and disadvantaged groups.
In recent years, Democrats and Progs have become enthusiastic supporters of using government power to make some people bestow benefits on other people, at no cost to taxpayers. The perennial example of such issues is increasing the minimum wage, whereby employers are required to pay more money to entry-level workers. But the emerging story of the 2020 Legislature is not just the familiar battle over such traditional Democratic issues, but a contest with Republican Gov. Phil Scott over three measures that our climate change activists believe are Vermont’s vital contributions to the continuation of human life on the planet.
Upon his election in 2016 Scott pledged to make Vermonters shoulder their share of the Paris Agreement that newly elected President Donald Trump vowed to pull the U.S. out of, and did. In 2017 Scott named a Climate Action Commission to chart a path toward that goal. But Scott had also repeatedly declared he would veto a carbon tax. Thus his commission’s November 2017 report, to the dismay of many of its members, stopped short of anything that momentous, and produced few if any sweeping recommendations.
Now the climate change movement is highly energized by its growing outrage over Trump’s unwillingness to even pay lip service to their great cause, and what they view as Scott’s accommodating verbiage but no meaningful action to drive down Vermont’s CO2 emissions to what some would see as utterly fantastic levels — 26% below the 2005 level by 2025, and 80% below by 2050.
The climate change movement sees a Legislature overwhelmingly controlled by their political friends: the House 102-43 Democratic /Progressive (plus five independents) and the Senate 24-6. Its activists are tired of waiting for bold action. The governor hasn’t given them any, and they demand the Legislature give them drastic action now. Here’s their program:
First, put Vermont into the Transportation and Climate Initiative. This is a Northeastern multistate coalition that will set regionwide CO2 emission caps. Then it will drive emissions below those caps by making motorists pay increasingly higher prices for gasoline and on-road diesel fuels at the pump. Some of the $56 billion in TCI revenues (from 11 states, over 10 years) will be sent back to state governments to subsidize electric vehicles, public transportation, passenger rail, and bike paths, and to devise new land use controls to prevent people from living beyond cycling or walking distance from compact town centers.
Second, enact the Global Warming Solutions Act. This astonishing legislation would convert Vermont’s 2006 goals for reducing CO2 emissions into the much stricter and mandated requirements noted above, create a “climate supergovernment” within state government, task state agencies to adopt all rules they find necessary to achieve the supergovernment’s (arbitrary) emission reductions – without a vote by elected legislators! – and authorize anybody to sue the state for not moving far enough and fast enough.
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Third, and less visible, inject a “defeat climate change” permit criterion into the emerging rewrite of Act 250, the 50-year-old planning and development act. This will likely require that every permit application will have to show that the development is carbon neutral, locates in a designated urban growth center (like Greater Burlington), makes maximum use of public transportation, and who knows what else.
Last week the social justice component of the state’s left-wing coalition jumped into the Act 250 issue, demanding that no permit be issued unless, in addition to meeting a host of CO2 emissions conditions, the applicant has made special provisions for the poor and minority groups that (supposedly) have suffered from previous development.
Our Legislature has always faced and dealt with conventional issues like taxation, regulation, labor law, highways, criminal justice, and education, health and welfare programs. Some have found the results unsatisfactory, but rarely are the Legislature and governor’s products life-threatening for the future of the state.
Now suppose the Legislature enacts these three measures, conceived and promoted by people who are, whether sincerely or cynically, obsessed with the menace of climate change. Suppose the people install a Progressive climate warrior as governor next year to carry out these measures.
What would Vermont’s economy look like in five years? Its attractiveness to small and large taxpaying businesses? Its employment opportunities? Its transportation system? Its ability to service its debt load, including its $4.5 billion pension fund liabilities?
True, in a green police state there will be more openings for climate regulators, lawyers, electric car servicers, bus drivers, insulation contractors, and solar panel installers. But beyond that?