By John McClaughry
A recent announcement from the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) brought back vivid memories of a long-forgotten legislative episode of 25 years ago.
The announcement came two weeks ago in a webinar sponsored by VPIRG and its ally, the Vermont Natural Resource Council. The purpose of the webinar was to build support for their most recent plan to lay millions of dollars of new taxes on gasoline, diesel, propane, natural gas and heating oil, some of which would, the advocates said, be returned to everyone through lower electric rates and assorted rebates (The Essex Plan).
An economically literate viewer asked this incisive question: “If these new carbon tax revenues are used to reduce electric rates, won’t that give people less of an incentive to buy energy efficient appliances?” Ben Walsh of VPIRG, presumably aware that VPIRG has for years pushed for legislation to ban insufficiently efficient appliances, replied, “It is something that VPIRG is going to be working on this coming legislative session, [to] go beyond what the federal government does. … We think there are some really exciting opportunities for Vermont to keep inefficient appliances off store shelves and protect Vermont consumers from those added energy costs.”
VPIRG has always found it “exciting” to levy new taxes and prohibit Vermonters from buying products that don’t meet VPIRG’s idea of what’s good for them and the planet. Let’s roll back the calendar to 1991.
S.109 was a mostly non-controversial bill to encourage least cost energy planning within state government. But among its many provisions were VPIRG-backed prohibitions on insufficiently efficient shower heads and light bulbs. The bill went to the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, on which I served, and in whose small committee room the VPIRG lobbyist had a designated seat from which she regularly slipped instructions to her two most dependable allies.
I was able to persuade three of the other five members that Vermonters would not take kindly to its Legislature sending snoops into their showers in search of contraband shower heads installed by rogue plumbers, or telling them which light bulbs they could or could not buy. Those provisions were discarded. The VPIRG lobbyist, and her allies, were crestfallen.
The Senate easily passed the amended bill. The House sat on it for a year. Then late in the session it was brought to the floor, where VPIRG’s allies persuaded a majority to add a ban on disapproved fluorescent bulbs.
The amendment provided that unless the federal government preempted the light bulb business by 1995, the Public Service Department would develop rules defining which fluorescent bulbs could be sold, offered for sale, imported or installed in Vermont. A government bulb inspector would sniff out violations and notify the attorney general. That official would send a lawyer to Superior Court to request an injunction to force the offender to desist. Violating the injunction would bring a fine of $50, possibly for each day in violation.
The House version reappeared in the Senate on the hectic final day of the 1992 session. I moved to delete the light bulb section. I pointed out that the state then had the highest tax rates in its history (enacted in 1991), Vermonters didn’t need their state government to enforce VPIRG’s product choices, nobody but VPIRG wanted to send a PSD bulb inspector to roam about the state digging up violations, the attorney general had many more pressing things to do than going to the backlogged Superior Courts to get fluorescent bulb injunctions, and in sum, the whole scheme was, to use my memorable summarization, “wacko.”
In spite of this titanic oration (or possibly because of it), my amendment was voted down 23-6. Ten of the 15 Republicans voted to reject it, along with all but one of the Democrats. Gov. Howard Dean signed the bill, probably because the rest of the bill was non-controversial and indeed useful.
What came of it? The federal government got into the light bulb regulation business. Gov. Dean decided the authority wasn’t worth using, and it was never activated — but it’s still on the statute books.
Why recount this now? Because, in addition to its eternal campaign to saddle Vermonters with an enormous carbon tax, VPIRG is back pushing for the same prohibition scheme all over again, this time vowing to get “inefficient home appliances off the store shelves.”
VPIRG will never give up trying to get legislative majorities to tax, mandate, prohibit, spend, regulate and penalize the people of this state until its every imaginable goal is achieved — and that imagination has no limit.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.