State GOP blasts proposed gas tax

State Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, speaks against the carbon fee in the proposed Climate and Community Investment Act in the state Capitol in Albany on Tuesday. Courtesy of the Senate Republican Minority Conference

ALBANY — State Senate Republicans pushed back against their Democratic colleagues Tuesday for a provision in proposed climate change legislation that would increase the cost of gasoline and home heating fuel.

State Sen. Daniel Stec, R-Queensbury, joined the Senate Minority Conference to rail against the Climate and Community Investment Act that would establish a climate pollution fee or carbon tax expected to increase gasoline prices 55 cents per gallon and heating costs by more than 25%.

“I can’t think of a more regressive tax than taxing gasoline and heating oil,” Stec said in the state Capitol on Tuesday. “It’s a very regressive tax for the most progressive state in the nation.

“Everything comes with a price tag, but the problem with government is the bill is usually handed to someone who has no choice in the matter.”

The Climate and Community Investment Act is slated to amend state Environmental Conservation, Executive, Labor, Public Authority and Tax laws to address climate change by expanding clean and renewable energy sources and projects, establishing a climate pollution fee and household or small business energy rebate, creating a climate pollution community just transition program and the Climate and Community Investment Authority.

The measure remains in each chamber’s Environmental Conservation committees.

The state’s gas tax would swell to 98.12 cents per gallon under the Climate and Community Investment Act — an increase of more than 127%.

The state has the nation’s seventh-highest gas tax at 43.12 cents per gallon, according to the Tax Foundation. California has the highest rate at 62.47 cents per gallon.

Funding from the tax is supposed to be evenly split with one-third to moderate- and low-income families, one-third to environmental justice communities and one-third to support green energy projects.

“My colleagues across the aisle would have you believe everything is binary choice: You’re either for the gas tax at 55 cents per gallon, or you don’t care about the environment,” said Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda. “That is simply a false premise that is not true.

“This is easily one of the most myopic pieces of legislation that has come out of that conference in a long time,” Ortt said. “In the middle of a pandemic, we’re talking about raising taxes on millions of New Yorkers.”

The GOP on Tuesday argued most New Yorkers, especially in upstate regions and communities, rely on driving personal vehicles to get to work and take children to school or activities.

Lawmakers expressed concern that higher gas and heating prices would also negatively impact north country businesses and tourism.

Many Northern New York families face financial hardship, Stec said, citing that a majority of north country school districts have more than 40% of its student population eligible for free or reduced lunches.

About 5,500 people in Essex and Franklin counties are eligible for the state’s Home Energy Assistance Program to assist with home heating costs.

“People vote with their feet when they’ve had enough and when they can’t afford to heat their homes or they have to choose between heating their homes or feeding their kids,” Stec said. “(The bill) would hurt low-income New Yorkers the other side of the aisle claims to be champions of.”

About 84% of state households are heated with fossil fuels, including 60% utility, 20% fuel oil and 4% propane.

The new fee would fund a rebate for low- and moderate-income families and small businesses created under the measure.

Representatives from NY Renews, a coalition of 200 state organizations working to protect the environment, said Republicans arguing the Climate and Community Investment Act would raise costs on consumers dismiss the human costs of continuing to pollute the air with fossil fuels.

“Let’s be clear: New Yorkers are dying every single day because of climate change and pollution,” according to a statement from the coalition Tuesday. “In New York City alone, air pollution from vehicles contributes to more premature deaths every year (322 deaths in 2017) than either homicides or traffic fatalities ... Superstorm Sandy, which represents just a taste of what’s to come if we don’t stop polluting, caused an estimated $74.1 billion in economic damages. We now also know based on a 2020 Harvard study that incremental decreases in air pollution would have led to hundreds less COVID deaths.

“New Yorkers should not be fooled by these lies,” the statement continued. “Our communities and our state demand no less than real, equitable climate action now.”

The state’s emissions have fallen by as much as 95% since 1990, according to Consumer Energy Alliance.

Republicans do not have a proposed compromise for the measure to take to the Democrats, who hold a veto-proof supermajority in both chambers.

“This is not holding polluters accountable,” Ortt said, adding automobile manufacturers and corporations have invested in new technology to lower their carbon footprint over the past few decades.

“We have lowered our carbon emissions by 95% since 1990 — we are already lowering carbon emissions,” the Senate leader continued. “This is unnecessary if your real goal is to reduce carbon emissions. (Then) your real goal is something else.”

Sen. Patricia Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, also joined Republicans in speaking out against the measure and related fees Tuesday.

“This proposal will disproportionately impact Upstate residents who don’t have access to mass transit and already have high home heating costs due to extreme winter cold, where it’s common to have below zero temperatures for days at a time,” Ritchie said in a statement. “To even try and impose these tax increases during a time when so many are struggling and our fragile economy is trying to rebound is unconscionable and I will continue to do all I can to fight back against this disastrous proposal.”

Ortt argued it’s too soon to tell if other changes or green energy investments are working to slow the impacts of climate change.

“It may be a political ploy — I don’t know,” Ortt said of the bill. “This is a serious piece of legislation that could become law.”

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