Vermont House Approves Tax Hike On Heating Fuel To Fund Weatherization

Mar 27, 2019

The Vermont House of Representatives has approved legislation that would boost funding for home weatherization programs. But opponents of the bill say the tax on heating fuel used to pay for it will drive up the cost of living for the people who can least afford it.

Paul Zabriskie is the weatherization director at Capstone Community Action Agency in Barre, which means he spends a lot of his time buttoning up old Vermont homes.

“Dense-packing walls with fiber cellulose material, or it could be spray foam in the box sills in a basement, or it could be a loose blanket of insulation across the top of an attic,” Zabriskie said.

Capstone weatherizes as many as 200 homes a year for the low-income residents. And while a typical job costs about $8,000, Zabriskie says these projects end up saving homeowners an average of $500 a year in avoided heating costs.

The money available for low-income weatherization projects statewide, however, isn’t close to meeting demand. And so on Wednesday afternoon, House lawmakers approved a bill that will increase funding by about four and a half million dollars a year.

Critics say there’s one big problem with the plan.

“The Achilles’ heel of all of these proposals concerning fossil fuels is the effect on low-income Vermonters, on ordinary Vermonters,” Arlington Rep. Cynthia Browning said during a floor debate this week on the weatherization proposal.

The revenue needed to boost weatherization funding will come from a  two cent increase on heating fuels, including propane and oil - double the current assessment.

And even fans of the 30-year-old home weatherization program, like Barre Town Rep. Topper McFaun, said it’s an ill-advised way to raise the money.

“We’re taxing a commodity, and the cost of that is being passed on to the very people that we’re trying to help,” McFaun said.

An amendment to the legislation would have raised the money by way of an income tax hike on households making more than $400,000 year. It failed, in part because House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said increasing income tax rates could put Vermont at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring states.

With average households using about 750 gallons of heating fuel annually, supporters of the fuel tax increase said it’ll add only about $15 a year to heating bills.

And environmental advocates, like Johanna Miller with the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said the legislation will also curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The fossil fuels used to heat homes in Vermont are the second-largest source of carbon emissions, behind transportation.

“In terms of what Vermont can and needs to be doing to do our part on climate, it was a really important step forward,” Miller said.

While the legislation passed by a reasonably comfortable margin the House, more than a dozen Democrats voted against the bill. And support fell well short of the supermajority needed to override a gubernatorial veto.  A spokesperson for Republican Gov. Phil Scott says he opposes the legislation, and thinks it would have a “harmful impact on Vermonters across the state.”