By Rob Roper
We are halfway through the 2019 legislative session, and a theme is emerging. While the majority of legislators would probably insist they are looking out for our most vulnerable friends and neighbors, the flood of proposed new taxes, regulations and curbs on traditional culture have something in common: they are almost universally hostile to low- and middle-income, rural, working Vermonters.
Just this week three new carbon tax proposals hit the House, all of which would make life more expensive and difficult for those who drive older cars, need larger vehicles for weather and terrain, drive further to work, and live in (and have to heat) older housing stock. An overwhelming majority of Vermonters oppose a carbon tax, yet the new legislature’s crop of Green New Dealers seems more determined than ever to pass one, if not this year then next.
The school district consolidation law, Act 46, is disproportionately punitive to rural school districts. This law, which works fine for larger, more populous regions of the state, is forcing poorly matched rural school districts to combine, disbanding their local school boards, in many cases against the democratically determined will of their electorates. Some rural communities have already lost their local schools as a result, and more expect to. Even though legislators say this wasn’t the intent of the law, they have done nothing to enforce their original intent or to fix the law.
Affordable housing is a huge issue facing our state, but the Act 250 “reforms” taken up this year will actually make housing more expensive and harder to build, not cheaper and easier. For example, a proposed requirement that all new construction be “carbon neutral,” either through adopting costly building practices and materials or by purchasing carbon offsets, will add to the already high regulatory cost of creating new homes. These costs will be passed along to the buyer/renter, raising the cost of housing.
Additionally, the legislature’s intent to herd development only into down town centers – the most expensive real estate – and to restrict it or ban it in rural areas where real estate is cheaper will also drive up housing costs and decrease incentives to build, keeping housing supplies low and prices high. The only people who will be able to afford shelter here are the very wealthy, or those poor enough and lucky enough to qualify for subsidized housing. Subsidized, of course, by middle class taxpayers, who increasingly can’t afford their own rents, mortgages and property taxes.
Following last year’s raising of the legal age to purchase a hunting rifle and ban on “high capacity” magazines, this year we are seeing more second amendment restrictions surface, including waiting periods for sales (48 hours or 72 hours) and a “safe storage” requirement. These further erode and show a lack of respect for Vermont’s rural hunting and sport shooting traditions.
Even the proposals that are ostensibly designed to help working people, such as the $15 minimum wage and Paid Family Leave will do more to hurt than to help.
A $15 minimum wage hike won’t matter as much in Chittenden County, where the market-level prevailing wage is already pushing hourly earnings to that level. However, in the rural communities, especially those along the Connecticut River that compete with New Hampshire and its $7.25 minimum wage, a $15 minimum wage in Vermont would be devastating to small marginal businesses. Many low wage Vermonters will lose their jobs entirely as a result of this mandate, others will lose hours. Those that do see a rise in income will disqualify for benefits, wiping out any financial gain. Every Vermonter will suffer the inflationary effects of higher labor costs being passed along to the consumer, especially those living on a fixed income.
The Paid Family Leave initiative would create a $100 million plus entitlement program that relies on a new payroll tax – essentially a 20 percent income tax increase for every already overtaxed Vermonter who earns a paycheck – for a benefit most Vermonters will never qualify to access. This encapsulates everything that is wrong with our statehouse mindset today: a massive tax Vermonters can’t afford to pay for a new entitlement the state can’t efficiently manage, and it has to be mandatory because otherwise nobody would participate of their own free will!
Take a careful look at this agenda. It’s not an agenda for the people a small, rural state struggling with high taxes, a high cost of living, a rugged climate, and not enough opportunities for upwardly mobile careers. Quite the opposite. It’s more like checking boxes on a list of ideological bumper sticker slogans from California.
Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.