Opinion: A tax is a tax is a TCI

By Guy Page

The sun rises in the east, the emperor really is buck naked, and the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) really is a tax.

Thank you, Dave Gram!

Even a casual look at the regional plan to make Vermont drivers pay 5-20 cents per gallon more at the pump for gasoline and diesel would tell you TCI really should stand for “Tax Carbon Incessantly.” Yet public officials have been insisting it is “not a tax.” As recently as December 4, Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore told a room full of lawmakers it’s not a tax because, y’know, the extra money seized at the gas pump would be reinvested into Vermont.

Come again? Isn’t that what government should do with all tax revenue?

Rep. John Killacky (D-South Burlington) tried that angle, too, on the Dec. 31 Dave Gram Show on WDEV. “Some people are calling it a carbon tax. I don’t think of it as a carbon tax. It’s a regional thing, and what happens is the money that is going to be taken out of this will be invested back into green energy and a green economy here in Vermont.”

But Gram – longtime State House reporter with a sharp nose for the smelly stuff – wasn’t buying it:

Gram: “I think shying away from that word sort of leaves a lot of voters with the impression that you’re trying to dodge something,” Gram told Killacky. “I’m saying, if it is a tax, if we need to have a tax. … Why can’t we call things what they are?”

Killacky: “Well, you know Dave, I don’t mind calling it a tax. I think the distinction I hear, and maybe it doesn’t change that in your framework it could be a tax, is that it’s invested back into the state. That this money isn’t just –

Gram (interrupts): That’s all the taxes that we pay! I pay taxes and it’s invested back into public safety.

Killacky: Okay, then, I don’t disagree with you.

This year, what also could be called the Tantalizing Carbon Income bill is Priority One for climate-minded legislators who need more tax revenue for expensive renewable power and alternative transportation spending items. The TCI will be the “banner bill,” Sen. Chris Pearson (P-Chittenden) promised climate caucus members December 4. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson invoked our children and grandchildren in her support for TCI during her opening address yesterday:

“We must do our part to curb emissions in order to slow the pace of global warming and reduce impacts on Vermont. We do not have time to wait. When I think of the world I want to leave for my nieces and nephew – when I look out in this chamber and think of the children and grandchildren, and in some cases great grandchildren that we represent, I am compelled to act. We will be taking a strong look at how Vermont can participate in a regional approach to the Transportation and Climate Initiative, or TCI. We have a lot to gain from the investments our state can receive back from this regional partnership, and a lot to lose if we opt-out of participation and still find ourselves subject to the terms of the agreement.”

Apparently now TCI also stands for “Terrible Crisis Intervention.” Act now or something worse will happen. Like the slow-witted targets of a telemarketer, we are being told that “we do not have time to wait.” Unless we are “compelled to act” right now, we have “a lot to lose.”

This dire yet vague prediction wants explaining. Is Johnson saying the other states will hose us even worse if we don’t join? So, that’s our choice – hoser or hosee? Take a seat at the table or find ourselves on the menu?

In all fairness, Johnson may be raising an issue that’s been a worry all along. If Vermont says no, won’t member states tax regional fuel dealers who will then pass along costs to Vermont drivers regardless?

But the deliberative, bi-cameral Legislature of our Brave Little State is smarter than that. Tougher, too. They could say ‘in your dreams, Rhode Island’ and ask the Vermont Attorney General to scotch this obviously predatory tariff with an “interstate commerce” challenge in federal court.

But, back here in present-day reality, Montpelier wants to Do Something About Carbon. Fair enough. It need not impoverish our rural poor or cave to unconstitutional threats. Instead, it could plant more trees and sell the ‘carbon sequestration credits.’ Buy more low-cost hydro and nuclear power and direct a share of the savings to energy efficiency. Offer tax holidays for electric vehicles. Teach roofing contractors to market and install ‘green roofs.’ Get a grant for small-town bike-sharing. Ask the media to promote ride-sharing.

This session, most Vermonters would be happy if TCI stood for Tax Cut Instead.