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Wait, What? A Coffee Tax?

February 20, 2017


On Thursday morning, I received a couple of phone calls and emails asking about a proposed wholesale coffee tax that would be used to help defray the costs of fulfilling the Clean Water Act. Coming from one meeting and heading to a vote on the floor of the House, I had no idea what the tax was, how it was going to be administered and where the idea came from. As I took my seat, I clicked on a link in my email to Vermont Digger, the online news source, and to an article that, indeed, reported that there was a proposal to tax coffee on a wholesale level. I also learned that caffeine seems to be a small problem in the lake, along with phosphorus and the many other chemicals that find their way through the watershed. I also heard that if the tax was proposed, our large coffee and beverage company — based in Waterbury, Williston and Essex, as well as number of other states and Canada — would announce they would leave Vermont.

It’s news like this that lights a fire quickly, and Rep. Wood and I responded by immediately asking our leadership if this was true. Within minutes, we learned that there was no such official proposal for this tax, and that the news report was only accurate in that it was discussed in committee. In one parlance, there was no there there, but it became a story, if only for a couple of hours. How did it happen?

From what I gathered from the representatives in the room, it went like this: Vermont needs to find A LOT of money to fund the federally mandated order to finally clean the chemical pollution in our state’s waterways. It is not solely about Lake Champlain, but the shorthand used limits it to the lake alone. The order will force many changes in how runoff is handled from farms and roads and other sources, and the controversy around the cost and how that money will be raised for our share of the clean up is, perhaps, the most emotional part of the discussion. On Wednesday, the committee had a wide ranging conversation about the dilemma, and “taxing coffee” was suggested in passing, and justifications for the tax was discussed, but it was never seriously proposed. The reporter heard the conversation and reported on it, and, in my opinion, did not capture the nuance of the conversation. We do this a lot in committee — many times the work is about problem solving, and I’m confident that the discussion was in this vein. Cleaning our water will be expensive, and everything is in play. Suggesting an idea, good or bad, is part of the process, but it doesn’t morph into policy until it is vetted pretty deeply, especially a tax like this.

Neither Rep. Wood nor I would have entertained voting for a wholesale coffee tax — we have at least three coffee roasters in town. The potential for upheaval is far too great, which this article didn’t contemplate. I don’t blame the reporter or the news site for publishing such an article, but I do wish it had been vetted and checked a bit better. Responding to phone calls and emails is a big part of our job, as is trying to put out a brush fire like this.

So, no coffee tax is on the table at this time, and if it finds its way into the conversation, we’ll make sure the ways and means committee knows that it is weak tea, and should be defeated.

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