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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Signed Without Fanfare, Gas Tax Becomes Political Target

VPR/Kirk Carapezza

On Wednesday morning, at the Sunoco station off Route 2 in Montpelier, Bob Grant of Plainfield was filling up his black Chevy truck and two red canisters.

“This is for my garden tractor,” Grant said, pointing to the canisters. “I’m retired but I have a lot of gardens, a lot of lawn.”

The retired grocery store owner stared at the pump as his total climbed higher – above $60. And as his tank topped off, Grant said he would gladly pay the new 5.9 cent per gallon gas tax increase that went into effect on Wednesday in Vermont.

“I don’t mind paying a little extra if they’ll fix the roads and bridges,” he said.

Without a ceremony or press conference, Governor Peter Shumlin quietly signed the transportation bill on Monday, triggering the per gallon tax increase. Some political observers say Shumlin made a political calculation in signing the bill in private.

Polls show the majority of the public don’t like the new tax, so Grant and others say they can understand why the governor signed the transportation bill behind closed doors. “It doesn’t make much difference to me if he did one way or the other,” Grant said. “Everybody is going to pay this - not just Vermonters”

That attitude worries staunch opponents to any broad based taxes. Jack Lindley, chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, said that the governor’s decision to pass up a formal signing ceremony signifies his desire to avoid the political implications of the tax. Lindley argued that Shumlin doesn’t want to be tied to the increase in future elections.

“Any governor that signs regressive taxes ought to be brought to the attention of everybody in Vermont, and he certainly doesn’t want to be held to that standard,” Lindley said. “It’s a broad based tax and it falls unfortunately on Vermonters who least can afford to pay this increase.”

One-third of the GOP in the Vermont Legislature, though, supported the tax. So Lindley said Vermont voters need to elect reform-minded Republicans.

“The direction that’s now being followed by our elected people is not a direction that will create jobs,” he said.

On the other side of the pump in Montpelier, Karen Joyce of Peacham pulled up in her 2002 Jaguar. A political science professor who’s been searching for a job, Joyce is disappointed with the new tax.

“It will change not only how I think about getting around the state, but whether I will stay in the state,” Joyce said. “There aren’t any jobs where I live. I’m going to have to drive a minimum of an hour.”

Last week, Governor Shumlin told reporters that he hears those concerns, but he said the state was facing a conundrum: raise enough revenue or risk losing essential federal dollars for repairing roads and bridges.

“Most people, I think, get the fact that it’s an unhappy choice – none of us like it, but it’s the better of the two choices,” Shumlin said.

And it was the choice that the governor ultimately made, dragging his pen across the $633 million transportation budget to make sure the state didn’t lose $56 million federal dollars.

Note: This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: One-third of all Republicans in the Legislature voted for the tax. Earlier versions of this story incorrectly reported that two-thirds had.

Kirk is a reporter for the NPR member station in Boston, WGBH, where he covers higher education, connecting the dots between post-secondary education and the economy, national security, jobs and global competitiveness. Kirk has been a reporter with Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wis.; a writer and producer at WBUR in Boston; a teacher and coach at Nativity Preparatory School in New Bedford, Mass.; a Fenway Park tour guide; and a tourist abroad. Kirk received his B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross and earned his M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. When he's not reporting or editing stories on campus, you can find him posting K's on the Wall at Fenway. You can follow Kirk on Twitter @KirkCarapezza.
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