On the evening of Sept. 15, just after the 6 o’clock news hour and a press cycle dominated by Dr. Anthony Fauci’s praise for how Vermont has handled the Covid-19 crisis, Republican Gov. Phil Scott announced he had vetoed the Global Warming Solutions Act.
Scott, who had long signaled he had concerns with the Democrats’ key piece of climate change policy, knew that his decision to veto
H.688 — just seven weeks before the Nov. 3 election — would be viewed unfavorably by some voters.
Scott decided to go ahead with the veto, hoping Vermonters would understand that, while he does believe in climate change and that it must be addressed, he simply disagrees with the roadmap outlined in the bill.
It was his 19th veto in four years, moving him into second place all-time in Vermont’s history — just three short of former Gov. Howard Dean’s high water mark of 21 vetoes.
The day before Scott’s decision, student activists sent out a call to protest outside the Statehouse and pressure the governor to support the climate bill.
“Gov. Scott has the opportunity to be a leader in environmental and social justice policy in this country, but if he vetoes the Global Warming Solutions Act (H.688), he will endanger young people, low-income groups, communities of color, indigenous communities, the disabled, women, and other frontline and marginalized groups,” Emily Thompson, the political coordinator of Sunrise Middlebury, wrote to the press on Sept. 14.
“Obviously I knew that there would be a very visceral type of response from the public who didn’t really understand why I would do this and come to the conclusion that I didn’t believe in climate change — which is not the truth,” Scott said in an interview the Saturday after his veto.
Democrats say the bill is one of the most important pieces of climate action to come out of the Legislature in years, but Scott has said he is deeply concerned that the legislation potentially circumvents the executive branch, making it unconstitutional.
The governor would also like to remove language that opens the state up to lawsuits if it does not meet emission goals.
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“I just believe in good government, believe in process and if that means that I lose support, it’s unfortunate but I hope they at least hear me out as to why I take some of the actions that I’ve taken,” Scott said.
An opening for Zuckerman?
The Republican governor’s veto of the climate bill has presented his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, with an opening to attack the popular incumbent.
However, it remains to be seen whether the climate debate will have any effect on the gubernatorial result Nov. 3.
Zuckerman, an organic farmer who has touted his environmental bonafides for decades, has long made addressing climate change an integral piece of his policy platform and has criticized Scott for lacking the vision needed to lead on the issue.
“This veto fits in line with the old Republican trope that it’s business versus the environment,” Zuckerman said in a recent interview. “We have an incredible opportunity to create jobs and build our economy with a healthy climate future in mind.”
On the campaign trail, the governor has highlighted his work to create tax incentives for electric vehicles, expand access to large-scale battery storage, and push for more weatherization efforts throughout the state.
Zuckerman says these efforts are too shortsighted and there should be a full-scale Vermont Green New Deal to properly combat climate change in the state.
“The scale of what he’s done is paltry compared to what’s necessary,” Zuckerman said.
Zuckerman’s state version of the federal Green New Deal — championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders — hinges on a temporary wealth tax on the wealthiest 5% of Vermonters that would fund broadband buildout as well as climate change initiatives.
The plan would bring the state around $100 million annually, according to the Zuckerman campaign, and would fund expansive remodeling and weatherization of low-income Vermonters’ homes, broadband buildout, renewable heating systems, electric public transportation options, and the use of electric vehicles.
A similar proposal was introduced in the Vermont Senate and House in early January of this year, but was never taken up. In the upper chamber, the bill,
S.311, had 14 sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham.
That legislation would place a 1.6% income tax surcharge on Vermonters making between $200,000 and $500,000. For people making more than $500,000, the tax rate would go up an additional 0.15%.
Someone making about $500,000 a year would pay about $3,000 more in state income taxes under the proposal, which would raise about $30 million annually.
The wealth tax would end after five years — around the same time that tax cuts for wealthy Americans, which President Donald Trump and Congress instituted in 2017, will also sunset.
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The model is similar to
Iceland’s “emergency wealth tax,” which was implemented after the economic crash in 2008. The small country’s government placed a wealth tax on the top 2.2% of its population from 2010 to 2013, raising $590 million per year, which has been credited with allowing Iceland to rebound successfully from the global recession.
Zuckerman said if he is elected governor, enacting the Vermont Green New Deal would be an “extremely high” priority. He sees it as a way to create jobs, make the state more affordable and address climate change.
“If there was ever a time to look at wealthier Vermonters giving back to our society to both rebuild our economy and build a planet for our future, we are in that moment,” Zuckerman said.
“Between the Covid crisis and the climate crisis, there is no way that an austerity-typical- Republican-small-government philosophy will get us to a stronger future,” he said.
Will the veto have much impact?
On Sept. 17, just two days after the governor vetoed the Global Warming Solutions Act,
the Vermont House overturned Scott’s decision on a vote of 103-47 — surpassing the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
The Senate quickly followed suit,
voting 22-8 to enact the climate bill.
But while the Legislature overturned Scott’s veto, the governor has continued to oppose the Global Warming Solutions Act, recently signaling he is reflecting on another potential way to kill the plan.
On Sept. 29, during a press conference, Scott said his administration was thinking about challenging the constitutionality of the Global Warming Solutions Act — arguing that the Democrats have delegated the governor’s authority to a new climate council, negating the executive’s ability to fulfill constitutional duties.
“We’re still contemplating that,” Scott said of a possible legal challenge.
The governor also argues he has put forward more concrete ways to address climate change than the Democratic-controlled Legislature has during the past four years.
“I would put my record on action against the Legislature’s any day of the week,” Scott told VTDigger. “You have to be honest about this; they’ve had the majority.
“We have an overwhelming majority of Democrats in the House, I guess when you start pointing a finger at someone, you typically have three fingers pointing back at yourself, and I would ask them what have they put forward,” the governor said.
Scott points his own finger at his electric vehicle proposals, which include installing charging stations throughout the state, adding to the state fleet, and being part of a nine-state
zero emission vehicles plan.
In the budget he proposed in January, Scott also proposed dedicating 25% of all future budget surpluses toward climate change initiatives. At the time, Scott said if that provision had been in effect in 2019, when the state had a $40 million surplus, an additional $10 million would have gone toward initiatives like home weatherization and vehicle electrification. Lawmakers rejected this proposal.
“We’ve laid out a foundation that I think we can build upon — now we have a long ways to go and I know that we all feel the pressure,” Scott said recently of his proposals.
“The Global Warming Solutions Act, from my perspective, was just typical political fodder in an election year,” he said.
Poll says Scott is way ahead
Whether the climate bill and Scott’s veto will dent the governor’s popularity remains to be seen. But it seems unlikely as people remain focused on Covid-19 and the economy in the runup to the election.
A Vermont Public Radio/Vermont PBS
that surveyed Vermonters Sept. 3-Sept. 15 has the Republican well in front of Zuckerman, 5% to 24%. In a sign of Scott’s strong support throughout the state, 48% of Democratic-leaning voters said they would vote for the Republican incumbent while 41% would cast a ballot for Zuckerman, the Democratic nominee. poll
“I don’t think this issue is going to have much effect at all,” said Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, about the climate change veto. Davis said Scott is far too popular in the state and his steady handling of the Covid-19 crisis has made a successful challenge in this election nearly impossible.
“Dave Zuckerman can talk about climate change, he can talk about the minimum wage, he can talk about paid family leave — all those things he would have loved to have talked about back in January and February,” Davis said.
“But for Dave Zuckerman to win, he has to make a good case to the voters that the leadership of the state that has the lowest rate of Covid cases in the country should be replaced in the middle of the pandemic,” he said. “I don’t think Dave Zuckerman has any shot.”
Matthew Dickinson, himself a professor of political science at Middlebury College, said Zuckerman has done as well as he possibly could to make climate change an important issue in this election. But it’s not the top issue for voters in the current state of affairs.
“He does a very good job of trying to make it salient by tying it to things like sustainable agriculture, bringing broadband to the state as a way to reduce travel times to work,” Dickinson said.
“I don’t think it’s the most salient issue yet. Obviously the coronavirus, school, the economy, getting people back to work is what’s going to be at the heart of this campaign cycle,” he said.
Rep. Jim Harrison, R-North Chittenden — who supported the Global Warming Solutions Act when the House passed it in February, then opposed it in September — agreed with Davis.
“He’s just got too solid a lead and too much good will for himself. It won’t make any difference,” Harrison said of the governor.
But, he said, there could be some negative attacks in House races, targeting state representatives who voted against the bill.
Harrison said he wouldn’t be surprised if Scott had made his own political calculation on vetoing the bill, betting on the political capital he has gained from guiding the state through the coronavirus pandemic.
“Right now, our house is on fire; maybe this isn’t the time to worry about planting the garden,” Harrison said.
For Dickinson, the way Zuckerman and Scott would address climate change is at the heart of how the two candidates view the role of government, and the difference between a fiscal conservative and a liberal.
“For Scott, as a Republican, the government’s job is to facilitate private enterprise to achieve society’s goals,” Dickinson said. “For Zuckerman, government is a means to coerce citizens to achieve what’s good for everybody.”
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