Energy committee seizes dollars from other programs
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | March 13,2013
MONTPELIER — A House committee has found the money it needs to fund new initiatives aimed at weatherizing Vermont homes and subsidizing renewable energy.
But the proposal would force up to $11 million in cuts elsewhere in the fiscal 2014 budget and land a host of other programs on an already crowded chopping block.
The House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy solved a revenue problem Tuesday by simply appropriating to its own bill money currently used to fund other programs.
The fiscal gymnastics are symptomatic of a challenging budgetary environment in which lawmakers have struggled to find sources for the nearly $50 million in new spending proposed by Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Committee Chairman Tony Klein, a Democrat from East Montpelier, said he knows the move won’t win him any friends on the House Appropriations Committee, which will be left holding the $11 million bag. But he said the “climate change bill of 2013” needs money and this appears to be the lone route to securing it.
“So the battle then will be inside the building ... about how do you back fill,” Klein said. “And I think we should be willing to have that discussion and wage that battle.”
While the committee has yet to vote on a final proposal, Klein’s solution relies on tax revenue already being generated on sales of heating fuels to commercial users.
Revenue generated by the 6 percent tax is currently split between the general fund and education fund. Klein would redirect a portion of it to his bill, which would reduce heat loss in Vermont’s aging housing stock and provide direct financial stimulation to the green-energy sector.
“(These fuels) are the source of the (climate change) problem that we’re trying to solve, and they should be contributing to the solution,” Klein said. “I’m not afraid to at least walk down that road and see where it gets us, because we aren’t getting very far walking down these other roads.”
The Natural Resources and Energy Committee has kicked around a number of revenue mechanisms, from a surcharge on “break-open” gambling tickets to new taxes on heating fuels. Tuesday afternoon, Klein reached his boiling point.
“We’re struggling with it. We’re getting lambasted for it, frankly,” Klein said during a committee hearing. “No one seems to want to pay for (these policies) in any way, shape or form.”
His tone marked a dramatic shift from the earlier part of this session, when both Shumlin and House Speaker Shap Smith offered impassioned speeches about the urgency of global warming. The bill was to be the cornerstone of this year’s climate-change agenda, with the state assuming a more aggressive role subsidizing the weatherization of Vermont homes, 70 percent of which rely on heating fuel.
The bill earmarks $6 million for weatherization and $5 million for the Clean Energy Development Fund.
The legislation also would have set aside $6 million for low-income heating assistance, but Klein’s committee eliminated that from the bill Tuesday, saying the issue is better left to committees more accustomed to handling those kinds of human-services issues.
Rep. Mitzi Johnson, a Grand Isle Democrat and vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the tax revenue into which Klein wants to dip would have a dollar-for-dollar effect on funding for other government programs.
“Any new use for general fund money, we’re going to have to weigh against all of the other general fund pressures,” Johnson said Tuesday.
Those pressures include a desire to bolster child care subsidies for low-income parents, a proposal that will be in direct competition with the energy bill for any new dollars.