Commentary: With TCI Imploding, A Worse Bill Is on the Horizon (January, 2020)

By Rob RoperRob Roper

Before the 2020 legislative session kicked off, proponents of the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI) were calling the interstate agreement to raise prices of gasoline and diesel by as much as 17¢ a gallon their “banner” legislation for the new year. Now, just half way through January, the scheme is unravelling at a rapid pace.

The ink wasn’t dry on the draft TCI memorandum of understanding before Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH) declared it a $5.6 billion “boondoggle” that his state would never support. That first domino fell hard, now several others are teetering.

In Connecticut, Governor Ted Lamont (D-CT), who has an approval rating of 24 percent and is already bleeding political capital over his plan to bring back tolls on interstate highways, is running away fast from what is a thinly disguised gas/carbon tax. Said Lamont about TCI, it’s “…probably not the way the to go.” In Maine, Governor Janet Mills had been counted as a strong supporter of TCI, but she is now feeling the heat from rural constituents. According to the Boston Globe, her office said that “the challenges of climate and transportation issues for rural states like Maine are unique, and the state will be appropriately cautious when considering these issues.”

Despite continued support from Rhode Island’s Governor, that state’s speaker of the house Nicholas Mattiello is holding the line on no new taxes. According to the Providence Journal, he “effectively ruled out any tax increases proposed by fellow Democrat Gov. Gina Raimondo last month, including the potential gas tax hike emanating from a regional climate initiative, saying it ‘will be looked at very skeptically.’”

And, of course, here in Vermont during his State of the State speech last week Governor Scott said, without naming TCI specifically, that “I simply cannot support proposals that will make things more expensive for [rural and low income Vermonters].” Scott has been vehemently opposed to any form of carbon tax since his first run for governor in 2016.

If New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island don’t participate in the TCI program, that would leave Massachusetts, whose governor, Charlie Baker, is probably TCI’s biggest booster, completely isolated. Baker himself is under increasing pressure by a growing, bi-partisan group of legislators who don’t like the regressive nature of the tax.

All this is good news for Vermont drivers, but it’s no time to pop Champaign corks and breathe a sigh of relief. If TCI burns to the ground, our legislature is going to feel pressure to “do something” they can spin as a positive step to solve climate change. And that “something” is likely to be the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA).

This bill, if possible, is even worse than TCI both in its effect and its insidiousness. The sales pitch for GWSA will be that all it does is make mandatory – or “put teeth into” – greenhouse gas reduction goals that are already in Vermont statute. So, what’s the big deal with that?

The big deal is that if GWSA becomes law, the Secretary of Natural Resources (an unelected bureaucrat) would be empowered to make and enforce rules – any rules – necessary to meet these mandated reductions, which, quite frankly, are impossible to meet by any practical means. Certainly nothing voters would stand for. And, when these impossible mandates are not met, according to the bill, “Any person may commence an action [read: sue the state] alleging that rules adopted by the Secretary … have failed to achieve the greenhouse gas emissions reductions requirements….”

At this point a hoard of Conservation Law Foundation, VIPIRG, 350.org, etc. lawyers will burst out of the belly of this Trojan Horse, file those lawsuits and, if successful, Vermont will have judges dictating climate policy rather than elected officials who are accountable to their constituents. (Adding injury to insult, the GWSA also says, “In an action brought pursuant to this section… a plaintiff shall be awarded reasonable costs and attorney’s fees unless doing so would not serve the interests of justice.” So, Vermonters will end up funding the legal budgets of the special interest groups mentioned above while those same groups use the money to drive up the cost of living and micromanage the lives of the folks paying those bills.)

The judges will say they are bound by the law regardless of the financial and societal impact, and legislators will say they are bound by the judges’ ruling. Completely cut out of this process will be the people who live, work, and pay taxes in this state. And, make no mistake, this is the real goal of the GWSA.

Climate activists are frustrated that they have not been able to persuade anywhere close to a majority of the voting public to support their policies, so their solution with the GWSA is eliminate the voters from the equation. This is not what democracy looks like. But, it’s what Vermont will look like if this awful bill becomes law.

– Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. ethanallen.org

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