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 news release on Monday about four separate statehouse proposals to improve the environment, redistribute tax revenue and discourage the use of fossil fuels.

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.

What was missing was the phrase "carbon tax." Coburn 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 money will magically fall out of the sky. You'll pay for it, at the pump.

Coburn was 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.

Where Coburn got it wrong was 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."

With all due respect, that's hogwash.

So was her assertion that Vermonters could "choose for themselves if and how they would like to reduce carbon emissions."

Here in rural Southern Vermont, where public transportation choices are limited at best, there's no choice in the matter. We must drive or ride to work most of the year. In fact, a low- or middle-income household working two jobs to make ends meet and unable to afford a new fuel-efficient home heating system might easily burn more fossil fuel than a wealthy neighbor. And that household would pay more out of its limited budget at the pump when the oil companies do what all businesses do — raise prices to recoup rising costs.

That's a dictionary definition of regressive.

Sure, the proposals might also lower sales or income taxes, but what good does that do if you're taking that money out of the other pocket?

If the proposed fees are not as outrageous as the 2016 carbon tax proposal — which would have eventually raised the price of gasoline 88 cents per gallon and fuel oil by $1 per gallon — then perhaps the benefits might make them worthwhile. The proposal by Rep. Martin LaLonde (D-South Burlington), which would funnel carbon tax revenue into the education fund, is particularly intriguing.

Do not mistake our skepticism about the carbon tax as a defense of Big Oil, or a no new taxes pledge rooted in election politics. 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.

The proponents would be wise to make sure their funding mechanism — whatever they want to call it — does more good than harm.

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