August 14, 2018

by Rob Roper

A UVM study by economist Jane Kolodinsky came to a surprising conclusion about labeling GMO foods, a policy the Vermont left pushed and succeeded in passing in 2016. As the title of the UVM article explains, “Mandatory Labels Reduce GMO Food Fears.” Yup, reduce.

It’s hard not to chuckle a little at this news. The objective of mandating that GMO food products be labeled, despite plenty of scientific research showing GMOs to be perfectly safe, was to scare people into buying organic alternatives. Proponents of the labels thought they would be perceived as warnings. Turns out, they’re a selling point.

As Kolodinsky, who has been tracking attitudes toward GMOs in Vermont for fifteen years, stated, “We’re finding that both in real-world and hypothetical studies, the introduction of a simple disclosure label can actually improve consumer attitudes toward these technologies. In a state that has been such a hot bed for GMO opposition, to see this change is striking.” And kind of funny, no?

One of the keys to a functioning free market is access to accurate information, so labeling GMO products as such is not a bad thing in itself, especially if this is information consumers really want to have. It was the punitive and disingenuous way the Vermont legislature that went about it that was so distasteful. At the time Vermont was debating this labeling, EAI preferred allowing non-GMO products to voluntarily label their products as such as a positive selling point, rather than creating a government imposed mandate on their competitors. But, I guess it’s always more fun and easier to kneecap your competition instead of doing the hard work of sell your own wares on their own merits.

But, now that we know labeling GMO foods as such helps boost their appeal, maybe the next step for GMO food manufacturers should be to run a “Look for the GMO Label” advertising campaign. Highlight the benefits of GMO foods, like decreasing the need for chemical pesticides, creating higher yields from fewer acers, thus allowing for more natural preservation, and making food more affordable and more accessible to everybody.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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August 14, 2018

 

by John McClaughry

Enviros are furious at a Trump Administration rule change to freeze the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirement for model year 2020 passenger cars at 37 miles per gallon, instead of increasing it to the 54.5 mpg by 2025 set by the Obama administration in 2012. It would also revoke California’s power to set vehicle carbon dioxide emissions standards and mandate sales of zero-emission vehicles, which 12 other states (including Vermont in 1996) have adopted.

When the EPA released its proposed rule changes on August 2, California ‘s governor and attorney general immediately declared all-out war to defeat the changes in the courts, backed up by the attorneys general of 19 other states, including Vermont.

When Congress enacted the CAFE statute in 1975, it sought to push the automakers to build high-mileage vehicles to defend against serious fuel shortages and skyrocketing pump prices caused by the Arab oil embargo of 1973.

The 1975 law (EPCA) explicitly prohibits state “enforcement of any law or regulation related to an average fuel economy standard under this chapter” and preempts state laws merely “related to fuel economy standards”. This provision aimed at preventing a 50-state patchwork of fuel economy requirements that auto makers cannot realistically meet.

A major challenge to California emission standards came in Vermont, in a 2007 case titled Green Mountain Chrysler v. Crombie (the ANR Secretary). In an exhaustive 243-page opinion, Federal District Judge William Sessions found a way to skirt the apparently plain language of EPCA. He held that the act did not preempt California (and Vermont) from imposing their own identical fuel economy rules, disguised as tailpipe emissions standards.

The auto industry dropped an appeal as part of a 2009 deal with the Obama administration. In it the administration bullied the auto makers into accepting ever-stricter CAFE standards, continuing California’s exemption, and ending industry resistance to the EPA’s  controversial “endangerment finding”.  This was accomplished largely because the Obama administration at the time owned 61% of General Motors plus 8% of Chrysler, and was engaged in bailing out GM to benefit the United Auto Workers.

Three years later the Obama EPA declared a 54.5 mpg fuel economy rule starting in 2025, which is what the Trump EPA rule is designed to forestall.

What does it mean to ordinary Vermonters for the Federal government to freeze the CAFE standard for new passenger cars at 37 mpg in 2020, rather than pushing it up to 54.5 mpg in 2025?

A higher mpg CAFE rule means that cars have to be some combination of smaller, lighter, less comfortable, less powerful, less cold weather capable, more fuel-efficient, or electric or hydrogen powered.

Smaller, lighter cars are not what consumers want, and they pose safety problems when crashing into larger vehicles, concrete, and trees. Wringing more fuel efficiency out of engines and drivetrains makes the cars considerably more expensive.  Some of that added front-end expense can be recovered by reduced fuel consumption over the car’s lifetime, but it’s not likely to be 100%.

To meet the CAFE fleet standards, the auto makers have to push up prices on SUVs, vans, and pickups to subsidize poorly-selling high-mpg cars. SUV and truck owners will run their vehicles longer, meaning higher maintenance costs and more older vehicles on the road without later-model safety and efficiency features.

The electric or hydrogen choice also involves higher initial costs (even with a $7,500 federal subsidy), range anxiety, charging time trauma, expensive power train maintenance, and impending fees to support highway maintenance.

With the oil embargo 45 years in the past, the ready availability of affordable gasoline and diesel fuel, and the astounding improvement in controlling vehicle-emitted pollutants like NOx, CO, and particulates,  why is the government (up to now) constantly pushing for stricter CAFE regulations? Why not just let consumers vote their preferences in car performance, comfort, fuel economy, price, and other tradeoffs?

The answer, of course, is the urgent need to force consumers to join in the battle against the menace of Climate Change. In Vermont, the Shumlin-Scott “90% of all energy renewable by 2050” goal can clearly not be achieved until the majority of cars, SUVs and pickup trucks are powered by electricity, which CAFÉ is designed to encourage. This will supposedly come from vast solar farms and more wind towers, backed up by Quebec hydro.

The latest ESSEX carbon tax plan is designed to tax gasoline, diesel, heating oil, natural gas and propane, and direct half of the revenues to lowering the cost of the increased electricity needed to power a vast fleet of electric cars (now less than three percent of all Vermont vehicles.)

Is government-forced vehicle fuel economy worth it? In his expert testimony in the 2007 Green Mountain Chrysler case, leading climatologist Dr. John Christy testified that “implementing the [CAFE] regulations across the entire United States would reduce global temperature by about 1/100th  of a degree  by 2100.” Judge Sessions’ opinion noted that “[Climate change godfather Dr. James] Hansen did not contradict that testimony.”

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org)

 

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By Rob Roper

During a debate on VPR between the four Democratic candidates who will appear on that party’s August 14th primary ballot, all stated support for placing a new Carbon Tax on Vermonters. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans), will not appear on the ballot but is running a write-in campaign, did not participate in the debate.

James Ehlers, a clean water activist who runs Lake Champlain International, stated, “I do think a carbon tax is the right path to follow.”

Christine Hallquist, former CEO of Vermont Electric Co-Op, hedged a little, saying that a carbon tax is, “one of the most effective policy mechanisms you can have for mitigating carbon,” but refused to give a direct yes or no answer regarding support. She has also said that reducing Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions and fighting climate change would be her top priority, if elected. It’s hard to imagine someone forgoing what she sees as the “most effective tool” when tackling her “number one” issue.

Brenda Siegal, a performance artist who runs the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, said, “Carbon pricing is essential as part of our way that we reduce carbon emissions in our state,”

Ethan Sonneborn, a fourteen-year-old kid, said, “I would be open to exploring [a Carbon Tax] as governor. I’m absolutely not ruling it out.”

The Carbon Tax most seriously under consideration by proponents in Vermont today is known as “The ESSEX Plan.” It would ultimately tax gasoline an extra 32¢ per gallon, heating oil and diesel an extra 40¢ per gallon, and propane and natural gas an extra 24¢. The revenues collected, after allowing for government expenses collecting and administering this complicated plan, would be redistributed via a series of rebates low income and rural Vermonters, and subsidies to electric providers, which they would in turn use to lower customers’ electric rates.

Governor Scott has promised to veto any carbon tax that reaches his desk, which would require at least 51 votes in the state House to sustain. Vermont Republicans currently hold 53 seats in the House, though twelve incumbent Republican representatives are not running for re-election.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

 

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August 13, 2018

By David Flemming

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our second Carbon Tax Profile looks at a young Vermont family living in northern Vermont. The Browns work two jobs to provide for their two daughters, Nadya age 7, and Alyssa age 4. They make under $70,000 a year with their two incomes, though childcare eats up a large portion of this annually. They have no budget for purchasing energy-efficient heating or electric vehicles to offset the carbon tax hike.

Click HERE to learn what the Browns could end up paying in 2019 and in 2026, the year the ESSEX Carbon Tax would be fully implemented.

To view our second EAI Carbon Tax Profile in a printer-friendly format, click HERE.

This year, a coalition of Carbon Tax advocates has been pushing a Carbon Tax scheme dubbed The ESSEX Plan. What the ESSEX Carbon Tax would do is place an excise tax on fossil fuels (topping out at 32¢/gal. for gasoline, 40¢/gal. for home heating oil and diesel, and 24¢/gal. for propane and natural gas), and, after accounting for administrative costs, grant the revenue to electric utilities for the purposes of lowering electric rates. Back in April, The Ethan Allen Institute commissioned a big-picture analysis of what this would mean for our state and our economy. Now we are diving into what this could mean for individuals and household budgets.

Over the next several weeks, EAI will be releasing several profiles that reveal what Vermont households could end up paying if the ESSEX carbon tax becomes law. These profiles will feature a variety of households with various incomes, household sizes, age-ranges and locations within Vermont.

To create these profiles, EAI surveyed over over 60 Vermont households about their fossil fuels needs for heating and transportation. Some of the profiles will reflect one actual household, others will reflect composite data from similar households. Our goal is to give Vermonters the chance to compare their own households to households with similar characteristics, so that citizens can get an idea of what they would pay under the ESSEX Carbon Tax. All profiles use a pseudonym and stock photos to protect the identity and privacy of our respondents.

While advocates for the ESSEX Carbon Tax did not offer a step-by-step guide for calculating the net impact per household, we used notes in the ESSEX proposal to the legislature to piece together the tax amounts and rebates, and paired this with household survey responses on fossil fuel usage. One striking conclusion is that we did not find a single household, wealthy or low-income, that was able to fully recoup the tax increase by way of rebates, much less bre

Click HERE if you want to view our second profile as a PDF, or read on if you would like a detailed explanation for how we obtained each line in the Browns’ profile. The image below shows half of the top half of the Browns’ profile.

 

 

 

 

 

Detailed explanation of EAI Carbon Tax Profiles:

SECTION 1

  1. Section 1: Demographic Info(County, Name, Age, Household Size, Occupation, Income Range, Time Calling Vermont Home).All survey households provided this information directly

SECTION 2

  1. % of Income Lost to Carbon Tax in 2026: we took the household’s 2017 income (SECTION 1) and divided it into the Net Carbon Tax (2026) below.
  2. Net Impact in 2019all households we surveyed would pay at least something to our government. We added together each Vermont household’s annual tax on gasoline (diesel and non-diesel) and annual tax on heating fuel (propane, natural gas, heating oil), which is based on the above calculations.Those with high heating fuel needs and those that used large amounts of gasoline on long commutes to to work and school paid the most in carbon taxes. Households with low incomes would be especially effected
  3. Net Impact in 2026: The ESSEX Carbon Tax calls for increasing the tax steadily every year from 2019 to 2026, at which point the tax rate on fossil fuels in 2026 will be 8 times as much as the tax rate on fossil fuels in 2019. While the 2019 tax might put a little pressure on the households of Vermonters, the 2026 fully implemented tax could very well be the difference between a family staying in Vermont and a family that packs up and moves to any of the other 49 states that don’t have a carbon tax. In 2027, and in each successive year, the tax increase is tied to inflation (CPI).
  4. Budget for purchasing energy-efficient heating or electric vehicle: with the exception of a few households, the vast majority of households surveyed answered “no” when asked if they were able to purchase more energy-efficient heating or an electric vehicle to offset the household increase in gasoline and heating fuel. Households might be able to improve their lot by purchasing expensive, state-of-the-art heating systems or electric cars, but these represent substantial investments that most households simply we surveyed cannot afford.

SECTION 5

  1. 2019 Carbon Tax Total: 2019 Gasoline tax and heating tax added together for 1 year
  2. 2019 Gasoline Tax:per gallon gasoline 2019 tax multiplied by annual consumption of gasoline. If a household used diesel gasoline at the 40% higher tax rate, this is included here.
  3. 2019 Heating Tax: per gallon 2019 tax multiplied by annual consumption of primary fossil fuel used for heat
  4. 2026 Carbon Tax Total: Sum of 2026 Gasoline Tax and 2026 Gasoline Tax
  5. 2026 Gasoline Tax:per gallon gasoline 2026 tax multiplied by annual consumption of gasoline. If a household used diesel gasoline at the 40% higher tax rate, this is included here.
  6. 2026 Heating Tax: per gallon 2026 tax multiplied by annual consumption of primary fossil fuel used for heat
  7. Gas per: (Month: # / Year: # ). All survey households provided this information directly
  8. Tax per Gal. Gasoline: (2019: $0.04 / 2026: $0.32) : this is the amount quoted in the ESSEX proposal to the legislature, released in November 2017. The ESSEX Carbon Tax taxes each gallon of non-diesel gasoline 4 cents in 2019, before reaching 40 cents/gallon in 2026.
  9. Diesel per: (Month: # / Year: #) (2019: $0.05 / 2026: $0.40): Diesel is taxed higher 20% higher in all years than non-diesel gasoline.
  10. of Propane per (Month: # / Year: #)  All survey households provided this information directly. Survey respondents were asked reference their heating bills to provide the number of gallons of propane that their household consumed, if propane was their household’s primary source of heat.
  11. Tax Per Gallon of Propane (2019 / 2026) ($0.03 / $0.24): The ESSEX Carbon Tax taxes each gallon of non-diesel gasoline 3 cents in 2019, before reaching 24 cents/gallon in 2026.
  12. Heating Oil per: (Month: # / Year: #) All survey households provided this information directly. Survey respondents were asked reference their heating bills to provide the number of gallons of heating oil that their household consumed, if heating oil was their household’s primary source of heat.
  13. Tax Per Gallon of Heating Oil (2019 / 2026) ($0.05 / $0.40):Home Heating Oil, is taxed the most heavily of any fossil fuel under ESSEX, eventually reaching $0.40 cents per gallon in 2026, which would be an increase of about 20% compared to current prices for a gallon of heating oil. Homes heated with heating oil will be the most heavily penalized of all homes that heat using fossil fuels. Assuming two heating systems of equal efficiency, it takes roughly the same volume of heating oil as propane to heat a home. However, the tax on heating oil is 40% higher by volume than propane.
  14. CCF Natural Gas per: (Month: # / Year: #) All survey households provided this information directly. Survey respondents were asked reference their heating bills to provide the number of CCF of natural gas that their household consumed, if natural gas was their household’s primary source of heat.
  15. Tax Per CCF of Natural Gas (2019 / 2026) ($0.03 / $0.24): A CCF of natural gas goes much further than a gallon of propane to heat a home for a Vermont winter. Yet the tax on a per unit basis is the same. Therefore, homes using propane (as are many homes outside Chittenden County), will be more heavily penalized (but as penalized as homes that heat with heating oil), while homes using natural gas will be penalized to a lesser extent.

SECTION 6

  1. Rebates: We are skeptical that the ESSEX Carbon Tax would be “pretty easy to administer” as its advocates have claimed, especially given Vermont’s past mishaps with statewide government programs, along with the high degree of complexity needed to administer ESSEX efficiently. We used the 2017 World Bank’s CARBON TAX GUIDE: A Handbook for Policy Makersto estimate the “Marginal Cost of Public Funds” (MCPF) for ESSEX. In other words, the fraction of every dollar of taxes necessary to administer ESSEX. To our knowledge, ESSEX advocates have never discussed the administrative cost of ESSEX beyond vague generalities. Using the MCPF, we determined that about 37% of carbon taxes collected from household will be needed to pay government workers to administer and audit the program, which means that Vermonters would see 63% of the household level taxes collected return to them in the form of rebates. However, there will be substantial differences in each household’s “Net Impact,” from ESSEX rebates. Homes with low incomes, high electricity usage, and/or a rural location will all pay less taxes than homes without these attributes. While it is hypothetically possible to break even with ESSEX, the results of our survey suggest that the vast majority of households will be worse off, some dramatically so if they rely on fossil fuels heavily and have limited eligibility for rebates.
  2. Rebate 1, “Low-Income” for 2019:This rebate would soften the blow of the carbon tax on the poor, but would not entirely make the poor immune from the ESSEX Carbon Tax. This rebate creates 4 categories of households, 3 of which would receive rebates while the fourth would not. This calculation uses 2017 poverty levelsfrom the US government’s Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), which uses household size and income levels to determine the % of poverty level. The ESSEX Carbon Tax denotes that Vermont households at 0-99% of poverty level would receive the maximum rebate. 100-199% would receive 75% of the lowest income households, and the 200-299% group would receive 50% of the lowest income households. Those with an income at 300% or above would not receive any Low-Income Rebate.
  3. Rebate 2, “Electricity” for 2019: The ESSEX Plan proposal came with a sample bill that shows what rate per kWh a Vermont household could hope to earn back on their fossil fuel taxes. This bill includes the rebate, presumably from 2026, showing a Vermont household receiving $0.0276/kWh. Divide that rate by 8 (for 8 years), and the 2019 rebate rate would be $0.00345/kWh. Households that use more electricity would receive a much larger rebate by 2026.
  4. Rebate 3, “Rural” for 2019:According to this rebate, households fit into two categories- those are considered “rural” and would qualify for the rebate, and those that are considered “non-rural”(urban) and would not. This determination is made at the Census Block level, using data from the American Community Survey. For the most part, a household within Chittenden County would be ineligible for the Rural Rebate, while most (but not all) households outside Chittenden County would qualify for this rebate.
  5. Earn Back on 3 Rebates in 2019: A household’s Electricity, Low-Income and Rural rebates are added together in this step.
  6. Earn Back on 3 Rebates in 2026: The number in the previous line is multiplied by 8, indicating that a household in the same location which consumes the same amount of electricity in 2026 with minimal income changes would receive 8 times their 2019 rebate.

 

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August 7, 2018

By David Flemming

On August 2, VT Digger and Channel 17 Town Meeting Television held a forum in advance of Vermont’s August 14 primary. They hosted five Democrat candidates running for Vermont governor (from left to right): Senator John Rodgers, Ethan Sonneborn, James Ehlers, Christine Hallquist and Brenda Siegel. Xander Landen is a VT Digger reporter serving as moderator for the debate, closest to the camera.

The first four candidates praised Governor Scott’s signing of the three gun restriction bills that culminated in the signing of S.55, but State Senator John Rodgers objected: “I did not support S.55. That is a bill that does take away Vermonters’ Constitutional rights. If we truly want safety then let’s look at the First Amendment. Maybe we should give the government and law enforcement access to everybody’s phones and computers and license plate readers and facial recognition and that would make everybody safer. But I don’t think we’re willing to give up our First Amendment rights for that. And I think all’s we did is turn law-abiding citizens into criminals.”

While folks may disagree with Rodgers on other things, his well-articulated response should give us all pause. Rodgers’ succinctly makes the case for Vermonters’ sacred freedoms, contrasted with a desire for safety. His question is plain, but weighty: “would you rather be safe, or be free?” At one time in Vermont’s history, the vast majority of us would have answered “free” without hesitation. But as the world seems to spin out of control, an ever growing number of Vermonters are finding themselves willing to give up some of their rights and responsibilities if they can get more safety.

Imagine a police force that had permission to use artificial intelligence to sift through millions of text messages originating from Vermont cell phones, thereby identifying “future criminals,” before finally confiscating firearms from those it deemed “a security risk.” We might be able to stop a few crimes this way.  But we would all sacrifice a great deal of freedom in the process.

As President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “if you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.” No government can ever provide “total security,” but that has never prevented governments from trying to convince citizens that this is possible. And once the government decides what quantities of healthcare and defense weapons each person is entitled to, those who are willing to work harder for higher quantities will find themselves constrained by what government deems are the “right amounts for everyone.” Those amounts often look suspiciously like rations.

While our legislators have made Vermont less free in recent years, we are still free to make choices that the majority of the global population can only dream about. Let us be grateful that we live where we do, even as we fight to make Vermont a freer place to live.

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August 7, 2018

by Rob Roper

One thing that (sadly) needs to be pointed out these days is that our right to “freedom of the press” does not refer specifically to the media. It refers to all of us. We all, as citizens, have the Constitutional right not only to say what we think (freedom of speech), but also to print and distribute those thoughts as we see fit. If you’re free to say it, you’re free to write it, and/or, with today’s technology, put it in a video, on the radio, in a tweet, etc.

The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” This fundamental right applies equally to all citizens. It does not create a special class of people who have special rights of expression because they get a paycheck from the New York Times or the Washington Post. The idea of freedom of the press as “freedom of the media” is, dare I use the term, fake news.

Nonetheless, recently there have been numerous examples of reporters and news outlets complaining that their exercise of free press rights is being criticized by citizens exercising their own free press rights. “You should not be allowed do this,” they say. “It’s dangerous!” Nonsense.

A recent article by Michael Cohen (one of many similar articles) calls out the president for labeling the press “the enemy of the people,” citing the dangers of demonizing journalists. He lists several who have received threats in the wake of these charges. However, a quick Google search reveals a multitude headlines from ostensibly mainstream publications stating the president and Republicans in general are “a threat to our democracy.” What is this but another way of saying enemy of the people? This is just as dangerous, isn’t it?

Don’t think so? Ask Rep. Steve Scalise, shot by a Bernie supporter while practicing for a softball game. Ask Sen. Rand Paul, attacked and severely injured by his leftwing neighbor. Ask conservatives like Charles Murray who have been chased off stages by violent leftwing mobs, or threatened while trying to enjoy a meal in a restaurant.

Is the media going to stop writing “dangerous” stories that spark this kind of reaction? Should the media be banned from printing such headlines and expressing such opinions? No. And they will, correctly, cite their right to free press. However, some powerful media outlets are now lobbying social media platforms to ban citizens who criticize them in digital print. THIS is a real violation of a free press. THIS is a real danger to democracy.

Criticizing the media is not a violation of their free press rights. It is an exercise of free press rights. But, banning someone from posting an opinion or an idea is a violation of free press rights. The media are not our protectors. Our right – everyone’s right – to exercise freedom of the press is our true protector. And, it looks like we will have to protect it from the media.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute

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by Rob Roper

Over just the past handful of election cycles we’ve seen a number of rule changes that have radically altered the way we cast our ballots and, as a result, changed the way politicians campaign. We now have things like “same day (or “election day”) registration,” “automatic registration,” “early voting” as much as forty-five days out, and an explosion in the number of people voting absentee. These and other reforms were sold to us as conveniences, and in some ways they are, but they come with some unpleasant and even dangerous side effects.

Take, for example, early voting. It’s no longer “election day,” it’s election-month-and-a-half. Now, politicians have to sustain a get-out-the-vote effort over six weeks rather than just one day. This takes a lot more resources. Campaigns need to run more political advertisements to cover the longer period of time, send more direct mail, get their lawn signs up much earlier, etc. To do all this, they need to raise more money.

So, if you’re one of the people who thinks our elections take a ridiculous and agonizingly long time, that politicians spend too much time chasing cash and are too beholden to those who give it to them, and, please, for the love of God, stop with the weeks and weeks of robo-calls… thank early voting. This “reform” is making all these aspects of elections worse.

There is another disturbing consequence to early voting as well. It is an incumbent protection measure. With voters able to cast ballots forty-five days before the official election day, politicians are incentivized to encourage their voters to do so. Especially incumbents, who know that if they can get you to vote early, you won’t be spending that six weeks of prime campaign season getting to know their challenger. Once they’ve got your vote, you can’t take it back.

If you vote early because you’re excited about the presidential or gubernatorial race, but haven’t had time to learn about the down ticket candidates, you’re more likely to just vote for the name you know, which is more often than not the incumbent. There are lots of unfair advantages incumbents have in election. Early voting is just one more.

But, the most dangerous consequence of early voting is how we’re doing it: absentee.

It used to be that voting by absentee ballot was rare and required a legitimate, officially approved excuse. There was a reason for this. When we vote at a proper polling location we confirm that we are who we say we are when we check in, and when we go into that private booth election monitors are there to ensure we cast our vote in secret, free of any outside coercion. It is a secure system.

In other words, the physical polling place is the mechanism by which we guarantee and sustain two key principals of our democracy: the secret ballot and one-person, one-vote. But, we are thoughtlessly and with the encouragement of our politicians, throwing this away.

Roughly one third of all ballots cast in Vermont during the last election (over 95,000) were early/absentee, and the percentage seems to go up every election. Election officials honestly have no idea who filled out these ballots or under what circumstances. Did the voter’s abusive spouse fill out the ballot? Was a partisan campaign worker looking over the voter’s shoulder telling them who to vote for? Did somebody steal the ballot and fill it out in someone else’s name? Nobody knows for sure.

In actual polling places it is against the law to electioneer. No one can pass out literature or even wear a button or a t-shirt supporting a candidate to influence a voter filling out a ballot. Again, there’s a good reason for this, but these rules don’t apply and cannot be enforced at one’s mailbox/kitchen table.

There are legitimate and illegitimate ways to take advantage of this lack of security, but none of them are particularly savory.

In a three part investigation into voter fraud by the Christian Science Monitor, CSM makes the argument that if Russia, or some other entity foreign or domestic, is going to successfully rig one of our elections, absentee ballots and early voting is how they are likely to do it. They won’t hack the voting machines directly, they will infiltrate the voter rolls, identify and/or create large pools of registered non-voters who either won’t know or won’t care that their votes are being stolen, and they will collect and cast absentee ballots under these “voters” names.

While there is no evidence of this kind of operation happening on a large scale yet, CSM cites a number of examples of how this kind voter roll manipulation coupled with the use absentee ballots has influenced elections on a smaller scale. One example (not mentioned by CSM) is from Victory, Vermont, where the Town Clerk and justices of the peace allowed ineligible non-residents to vote absentee, successfully altering the outcome of an election.

Our politicians tell us that they are implementing these election reforms for our convenience. But, Thomas Jefferson did not warn that the price of liberty is eternal convenience. Creating loose registration requirements, easy access to absentee ballots, extended voting periods, and removing voting from supervised locations gives bad actors the tools and time necessary to commit meaningful election fraud. The unscrupulous are already taking advantage of this on a small scale. It’s only a matter of time before someone exploits these holes in our electoral system big time.

– Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.

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July 31, 2018

by Rob Roper

Vermont Business Magazine reports that “Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions estimates in Vermont continued to rise for calendar year 2015, increasing from 9.45 million metric tons CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) in 2014 to 9.99 MMTCO2e in 2015. This increase puts Vermont approximately 16% above the 1990 baseline value of 8.59 MMTCO2e and adds to the difficulty of reaching the statewide goal of 50% below 1990 emissions levels by 2028.”

So, what?

Even if Vermont reached the goal of 50% below 1990 (two arbitrary by nice-sounding round numbers), what impact would that have on global climate change? None. If we scrapped the whole plan tomorrow would the world be worse off? No.

United States District Judge William Alsup recently dismissed a case brought by two California cities, Oakland and San Francisco, against several oil companies regarding their role in climate change and the impact it has on rising sea levels. Some of the judge’s statements deserve consideration in how we look at global warming vs. fossil fuel policies. In the first of two decisions, the Alsup concluded,

With respect to balancing the social utility against the gravity of the anticipated harm, it is true that carbon dioxide released from fossil fuels has caused (and will continue to cause) global warming. But against that negative, we must weigh this positive: our industrial revolution and the development of our modern world has literally been fueled by oil and coal. Without those fuels, virtually all of our monumental progress would have been impossible. All of us have benefitted. Having reaped the benefit of that historic progress, would it really be fair to now ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels and place the blame for global warming on those who supplied what we demanded? Is it really fair, in light of those benefits, to say that the sale of fossil fuels was unreasonable.

In a later ruling he points out, “…nowhere do plaintiffs assert that sea rise would not have occurred had any defendant reduced or refrained from fossil fuel production in California (or elsewhere in the United States).

Taken together, these two statements encapsulate the fact that mankind has benefited immeasurably from fossil fuel energy, and that even if all these oil companies suddenly stopped producing and distributing fossil fuels it would have no mitigating impact on global warming. To follow through on the plans of the environmental activists, we would be giving up benefits, inflicting punishment, and achieving nothing as a result. Stupid. Gavel smash. Case dismissed.

Vermont should evaluate our Greenhouse Gas Initiatives in the same way. What are the concrete benefits of reducing our emissions by so much over the next ten years? What are the costs? Is the benefit worth the cost? If not, maybe we shouldn’t worry about the fact that we missed the goal. Maybe we should scrap the plan entirely.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute

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by John McClaughry

“Overcharged: Why Americans Pay Too Much for Health Care” is a fast-paced 435-page trip through the underbelly of the health care industry, the policies that shape it, and their often undesirable and overly costly results. Its basic point is that “The health care sector will become more efficient and pro-consumer when and only when it is subjected to the same competitive forces that apply to the rest of the economy…To make American health care better and cheaper, customers should use their own money to purchase medical treatments directly, the same way they buy everything else.”

This may not strike readers as obvious, but law professors Charles Silver (Texas) and David A. Hyman (Georgetown) have accumulated a ton of evidence in support of that proposition.

America is now six decades into the Modern Era of Third Party Payment. As of 2016, 91% of families had some or all of their health care expenses paid by third parties, notably the government (Medicare, Medicaid) private insurers (Blue Cross, etc.) , and self-insured employers.

The consequence of this is that aside from modest copays and deductibles, third party payment causes people to engage in what the authors call “an epidemic of overuse”. The resulting overconsumption drives prices higher, and that stimulates all sorts of schemes where providers charge “fee for service” for too many procedures, overpriced drugs, unnecessary medical equipment, dubious mental health therapies, and needless ambulance trips.

Among the practices devised by providers eager to get rich from this spending are “upcoding”, ”turbocharging”,  “evergreening” and “rent-a-patient.” For many providers, excessive health care spending  can become a cash flow dream come true.

Third party payers, especially the Federal government, simply cannot keep track of what services hundreds of millions of people are getting, whether they are “medically necessary”, or whether the billed services are actually provided.

The best that Medicare and Medicaid can do is sniff out as much outright fraud as possible, sensationally prosecute the perpetrators (often including doctors who make honest coding errors), and contrive more complex regulations to keep providers from gaming, as well as defrauding, the system.

The authors come down hard on the “old-time providers” who are ever alert to enlist (and finance) politicians to stamp out threatening competition.  Licensed physicians and their employers (increasingly hospitals) are the gatekeepers for treatments and prescriptions, and they jealously protect those government-conferred privileges. (Strangely, the authors ignore one of the most potent tools used to shackle competitors, the Certificate of Need.)

The authors deride every proposed political solution. Obamacare? Pumped billions more dollars into a politicized and corrupt system.  Repeal Obamacare? The Republicans could only come up with a feeble “Obamacare-lite”.

Socialized medicine? The authors devote six pages to explaining that Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” – putting the government in charge of one fifth of the U.S. economy -aggravates the overcharging problem,  promises to be fantastically expensive ($518 billion the first year, according to the Urban Institute), and is a pathetic example of “magic thinking”.

Even free marketeers, who would agree with all of the foregoing criticisms, come in for their share. Silver and Hyman oppose any kind of tax incentives or benefits to influence health choices. They even oppose Health Savings Accounts, the tax-free contributions to which are restricted to paying for health care, though they grudgingly concede that HSAs “make a horrible tax policy less horrible.”

But later on, after approvingly describing Singapore’s (mandatory) Medisave accounts, they reverse course, and favor HSAs coupled with catastrophic insurance for rewarding people for saving responsibly for their health care needs later in life. What they underappreciate is that the HSA starts a movement away from the third party payment regime that they rightly detest.

The most hopeful solution they offer is an innovative health care retail sector. That includes astonishingly cost-effective medical tourism (to such remarkable medical complexes as Narayana Hrudayalaya in Bengeluru, India. It also includes CVS Health’s 1,135 Minute Clinics and the all-inclusive cash-price menu of 112 common surgeries offered by the Surgery Center of Oklahoma. (They neglect to mention Winooski-based Marathon Health, which has built over 130 clinics in plants and offices in more than forty states, and integrated providers like Kaiser Permanente and Intermountain.)

Silver and Hyman conclude that “our politicized third party payment system creates bad incentives that attract the already corrupt, and also corrupt the virtuous.” The crucial reform is to move away from non-catastrophic third party insurance coverage, and dramatically expand the role of first party (consumer) payment in a competitive marketplace. Their argument, buttressed by a wealth of facts, cases, and examples, is a powerful one.

–  John McClaughry, vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

 

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July 27, 2018

by Rob Roper

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who went on to serve as the Democratic National Committee Chairman, admitted in a recent interview on MSNBC with a bit of a chuckle, “This is going to seem like heresy from a Progressive: The truth is, everybody needs to pay more taxes, not just the rich.” Everybody. That means you.

This is, of course, is absolutely accurate if the increasingly “progressive” agenda of the left, which includes government run healthcare, government run childcare, “free” college for all, a government provided guaranteed income, the list goes on is enacted into law. None of these things is free. It must be paid for, and, as such, Dean’s comment should be obvious. Squeezing just “the rich” won’t be enough to satisfy the progressives thirst for other people’s money. Everybody will be squeezed, and squeezed hard.

Dean’s candor is in contrast to the misleading rhetoric we hear from the likes of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and now Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who nonsensically imply that just the billionaires being forced to pay their “fair share” (a term they refuse to define) will be enough to pay for their agenda. Not even close. Hold onto your wallet.

Dean’s comments also highlight just how far to the left the Democratic Party has moved in a relatively short time. As a governor, Dean was considered to be a moderate, particularly on fiscal issues. Now he is characterizing himself as a Progressive and gleefully endorsing higher taxes on the poor, the middle class. I’m not sure that’s what lower and middle income Americans think they’re signing up for. Thanks to Dean for at least being honest.

– Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

 

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The Ethan Allen Institute is Vermont’s free-market public policy research and education organization. Founded in 1993, we are one of fifty-plus similar but independent state-level, public policy organizations around the country which exchange ideas and information through the State Policy Network.
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