Despite a strong economy at the national level, many Vermonters feel left behind. Across our state, thousands struggle to pay their bills and make ends meet. From burdensome taxes to sky-high insurance premiums, many individuals, families and small businesses are stuck in a persistent economic cycle they didn’t create. Small towns and villages that have been the economic anchors for our regional centers, are stagnant. And all of these challenges are compounded by a demographic crisis that threatens to further shrink our working-age population.

That’s why I get frustrated when I hear those in Montpelier talk about their desire for higher taxes and fees. Even when they use different words, we all know if it looks like a tax, smells like a tax, and sounds like a tax — it’s probably a tax. And while a certain level of taxation is absolutely necessary to fund important services and investments, there’s no denying Vermont’s tax burden is excessive, and adding to it would be an economic mistake that would further exacerbate the flight of taxpayers from our state.

Much of the talk of new taxes and fees surrounds programs intended to help mitigate climate change and protect our environment. Many Vermonters share these sentiments. Let me be clear: not only is climate change a justified concern, but Vermont’s natural beauty and environmental quality are essential features of our state — not to mention a major tourism driver — and must be preserved. We have an economic and moral responsibility to enact environmentally friendly policies. However, these environmental policies must be economically friendly, as well, so as not to push our friends and neighbors off of an affordability cliff.

In other words, it doesn’t have to be a choice between an affordable state or a clean environment. I believe we can enact solutions that recognize the codependence of our environment on our economy. We can achieve both goals if we adopt a carrots-not-sticks mentality that emphasizes incentives and common-sense approaches, as opposed to excessive taxes or unrealistic mandates. Here are some examples:

We can and should fund the proposed VHIP program to combine affordable housing incentives with weatherization upgrades, in order to make blighted properties livable and energy-efficient.

We can and should create a sales-tax holiday for electric vehicles, hybrids and energy-efficient equipment, as legislative Republicans and the governor proposed a few years ago.

We can and should modify our state’s incentive programs to support Vermont businesses and entrepreneurs that focus on solutions to environmental problems.

We can and should demand policymakers do something about the millions of gallons of wastewater released by towns and cities into our waterways each year. Here in Milton, we’ve managed to make upgrades so that the water our wastewater treatment facility puts out is cleaner than when it comes in. Other towns and cities should do the same.

These are just a few starting points for conversations about common-sense and innovative proposals to address our environmental concerns. But what’s absolutely crucial is that the conversation about environmental policies doesn’t cast aside affordability — or worse, amplify the cost of living struggles many Vermonters are facing.

We can’t afford not to preserve our environment. But we also can’t afford policies that, in an effort to strengthen our environment, wind up weakening our economy. We must work together and put aside party labels to adopt policies that are both environmentally and economically sustainable.

Don Turner is a former Republican state representative from Milton and current Milton town manager.

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