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Clean-energy crusader pushes tax on carbon dioxide


Sue Radfords Colorado Clean Energy Tax Shift would be - the first of its kind in the U.S. - COURTESY ROCKY MOUNTAIN CHRONICLE
  • Courtesy Rocky Mountain Chronicle
  • Sue Radfords Colorado Clean Energy Tax Shift would be the first of its kind in the U.S.

Sue Radford acknowledges that she and her family are "part of the problem" when it comes to climate change. For starters, living outside the northwest corner of Fort Collins' city limits forces them to drive more than many city-dwellers.

"We're not doing anything crazy; we don't have photovoltaics on the roof," Radford says. "This wasn't a problem 20 years ago, when we bought the place."

But Radford is planning to transform the way the state of Colorado fights global warming, and that includes more than just putting up solar panels or changing transportation habits.

In fact, her proposal for the state ballot, called the Colorado Clean Energy Tax Shift, would be the only one of its kind in the nation.

"The strength of this proposal," Radford says, "is that it's setting up the conditions for renewable energy to be profitable, and it's doing it without big government."

"Like a cigarette tax'

The Colorado Clean Energy Tax Shift would charge all consumers for carbon-dioxide emissions from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, and it would return the revenue via a series of rebates and refunds under the current tax system.

Out of the $1.2 billion that Radford estimates would be generated, only $3 million would be held back for expenses, which means that nearly all the tax money would be funneled back to the public. Radford is trying to get her initiative on the 2008 ballot to let Colorado voters decide if it should be added as an amendment to the state constitution.

The plan differs from Boulder's carbon tax, passed by voters in 2006, which only taxes electricity and dumps the proceeds into a general fund.

"This is changing the way we collect taxes without changing the amount we collect," says Radford. "This would work like a cigarette tax increase the price so people don't use so much of it. All this money is coming back to us. A refund package is set up. This should be creating jobs and protecting the poor.

"We're giving money back," she continues. "So this should fit right into the spirit of [the Taxpayer Bill of Rights]."

The refund package works in a variety of ways.

First, the collected taxes will fund an earned-income tax credit, which gives money back to middle-class, working families struggling to stay out of poverty.

State Rep. John Kefalas, a Fort Collins Democrat, is introducing separate legislation next month, when the Colorado Legislature convenes for its 2008 session, in an attempt to re-establish the state's earned-income tax credit.

Kefalas estimates his proposal would give families 10 percent of the federal earned-income tax, totaling an average $180 refund, and the carbon-tax shift would double that amount to $360. Kefalas says approximately 250,000 families are eligible, and he adds that the proposal has a lot of grassroots support so far.

The remaining revenue from the carbon-tax shift would be split to refund business-personal property taxes (assessed on things like furniture and tools used in a business, trade or profession) and then alleviate sales, payroll and income taxes.

"We shouldn't be taxing business equipment; it's not a pro-business thing to do," Radford says. "We want businesses to succeed, so that's why that item is on the block."

"A Sue in all 50 states'

Despite the pro-business spin, Radford isn't sure if utilities will support her initiative.

And Radford knows the use of the "T word" makes the concept a tough one for even sympathetic politicians and interest groups to proclaim outright support.

"The elected officials I know, who have to get re-elected, are very hesitant to talk about taxes," Radford says.

But she remains optimistic that people will acknowledge that the measure relieves taxes and gives back the carbon revenue.

At the national level, one person in her corner is Charles Komanoff, codirector of the Carbon Tax Center in New York City, who has worked extensively with Radford on the analytical aspects of her proposal.

"Colorado and Sue's initiative are ahead of the pack. No other state is doing it," Komanoff says. "If there was a Sue Radford in all 50 states, this country would be really getting somewhere in attacking the carbon crisis."

For now, Radford is revising the initiative, after the State of Colorado Legislative Council of the General Assembly in Denver made its first suggestions on the legal language.

The council vets proposed initiatives as a service to clarify the legal language involved.

Once Radford is satisfied with the outcome, she can start collecting signatures to qualify the initiative for a statewide vote in the November 2008 election.

"Then we're on the ballot, probably have to spend $10 million, and then we win," she says, laughing but with a sense of the real challenge ahead.

Brian Park is a contributor to the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, where a version of this story originally appeared.

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