Rep. Mike Yantachka
This past week in the Vermont House saw several major bills passed with significant floor debate. These included broadband deployment (H.513), childcare (H.531), workforce development (H.533) and the major money bills including, transportation (H.529), revenue (H.541) and the budget (H.542), plus a controversial weatherization bill (H.439) that increases the fuel tax by 2 cents per gallon. After many weeks of long hours and input from all the policy committees, the administration and individual legislators, the House Appropriations Committee presented a balanced budget, which passed 139 to 1, that is 2.6 percent higher than last year’s but less than the 3.1 percent increase proposed by the governor. These bills, now headed to the Senate, are significant and deserve describing in more detail than this article will allow. Instead I will focus on elements of the budget that address climate change.
Three reports that were issued last year highlighted the importance of addressing climate change during this session: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming, the Fourth National Climate Assessment released by the Trump administration, and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Update. The IPCC report noted that we are already seeing the effects of a 1 degree Celsius rise in global temperature and gave a dire warning that we have to reduce global CO2 emissions 45 percent by 2030 to avoid a 1.5 degree increase that would have catastrophic geologic and demographic results worldwide. The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation reported that Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased 16 percent over 1990 levels, mainly from transportation (43 percent) and heating (24 percent). We have a global problem that will require global action—including Vermont’s—to solve.
The House has taken a number of steps in this direction with the passage of the budget and revenue bills. The budget includes $1.5M for an electric vehicle (EV) incentive program, $300,000 for public charging stations, $500,000 for EVs and charging stations for state government, $250,000 to Efficiency Vermont for weatherization assistance for moderate income families, and $350,000 for weatherization workforce training. While the budget passed almost unanimously, the weatherization bill with the fuel tax increase was the most controversial.
We currently pay 2 cents per gallon on heating oil, propane and dyed diesel fuel and 0.75 percent on natural gas. The revenues fund the Weatherization Assistance Program for families below 80 percent of median family income to reduce the amount of fuel needed to heat their homes. Combined with federal funds, the program benefited 860 families in 2018. The need is much greater, however. Because of the understandable prioritization to serve the lowest income families first, many eligible, low-income Vermonters are waiting years to be served while thermal energy continues to be wasted, unnecessary amounts of fossil fuels are burned, and Vermonters continue to live in cold, unhealthy and dangerous conditions. By increasing the tax from 2 cents to 4 cents on liquid fuels and from 0.75 percent to 1 percent on natural gas, an additional 400 families can be assisted.
This tax increase was debated over two days with several amendments offered. Opposition centered on the additional cost to the low-income families it’s supposed to help, as well as the additional cost to farmers and loggers who use large amounts of dyed diesel. One amendment was passed to exempt farmers and loggers not only from the increase but also from the existing 2 cents per gallon. (The House earlier also approved an exemption from the sales tax for logging equipment.) This bill, which passed by voice vote, is beneficial for the following reasons:
The weatherization program, in existence from the 1970s, has been very successful in helping low-income families reduce their heating bills, live healthier, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The additional cost is minimal. A typical household using 750 gals of heating oil a year will have an additional cost of $15 over the entire heating season.
The price of fuel oil varies 10 times as much during the heating season. This year my deliveries ranged from $2.75/gallon to $3/gallon. A 2-cent increase adds only $2 more on a 100-gallon delivery, which today costs $290.
The savings are huge. Weatherization typically saves 29 percent of fuel use, resulting in $500 to $600 savings per season, and results in cumulative savings over time instead of cumulative wasted fuel and money heating a leaky house. This is money that stays in Vermont, compared to 80 percent of fuel dollars that leave Vermont.
It reduces dependence on LIHEAP and other fuel assistance that lasts only for the season.
It creates more construction jobs in the weatherization field.
I see this as a win for low-income families, a win for the economy and a win for the environment!