Proposed bipartisan federal legislation calling for carbon fees on fossil fuels wins majority of Sarasota city commissioners’ support

Commissioners Freeland Eddie and Brody offer mix of reasons for ‘No’ votes

Andy Tugendhat and city Sustainability Manager Stevie Freeman-Montes address the City Commission on Oct. 21. News Leader image

On a split vote this week, the Sarasota City Commission approved a resolution of support for proposed federal legislation that would implement a national carbon fee on fossil fuels based on the amount of carbon dioxide the fuel would emit when burned.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch made the motion to adopt the resolution, and Commissioner Willie Shaw seconded it.

“Our environment is our economy,” Ahearn-Koch pointed out. “This resolution addresses all of [the] concerns that we keep hearing again and again and again from our community …”

“I would love to be able to bring this up” during discussions with the elected leaders who represent Sarasota County in the Florida Legislature and in Congress, Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues.
The resolution references U.S. House of Representatives (HR) Bill 763, which has bipartisan support, Ahearn-Koch noted. “It’s the direction we need to go in as a city.”

According to Citizens’ Climate Lobby, if approved, the federal policy would “reduce America’s emissions by at least 40% in the first 12 years” and create 2.1 million new jobs, “thanks to economic growth in local communities across America.”

A FAQ (frequently asked questions document) that city Sustainability Manager Stevie Freeman-Montes prepared for the commissioners in advance of the Oct. 21 meeting says, “[T]wo-thirds of Americans will receive more in dividends than they will pay in higher prices.”

Economists worldwide have cited carbon pricing as “the single most impactful policy change” to slow global warming, Andy Tugendhat, a representative of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, emphasized to the commissioners during public comments on the proposed resolution. “I’m asking you to send a clear message to our national delegation [that] subsidizing the pollution of the planet … is unacceptable.”

(William D. Nordhaus of Yale University, co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for 2018, was honored “for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis,” the Nobel Prize website notes.)

This is a section of the Frequently Asked Questions document Sustainability Manager Stevie Freeman-Montes prepared for the Oct. 21 agenda item. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Another speaker on Oct. 21, Susan Darovec of Bradenton, co-leader of Citizens’ Climate Lobby for the Sarasota-Bradenton area, added that HR 763 is the only bipartisan bill of its kind in consideration in Congress. If it is approved, she said, “[It will] help slow carbon pollution in our world.”

Mayor Liz Alpert joined Ahearn-Koch and Shaw in supporting the resolution.

Worries about wording and lack of expertise

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie, who joined Commissioner Hagen Brody in voting “No” on Ahearn-Koch’s motion, voiced concern that it appeared to her that too much of the carbon fee revenue would be allocated to administrative expenses.

The resolution notes that “equal monthly per-person dividend payments should be made to all American households from the fossil fuel fees collected.”

However, Freeland Eddie continued, the draft of the U.S. House bill indicates that 8% of the money would be allocated to at least five federal agencies, before any funds go to U.S. households. One of those agencies, Freeland Eddie added, is U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

Referencing an earlier discussion the commissioners had about the proposed resolution — on Sept. 16 — Freeland Eddie said the U.S. House bill “renews my concerns that the lower-income families [will shoulder] a high cost at the [gas] pump and then [receive] a smaller reimbursement at the tax stage.”

This is another section of Sustainability Manager Stevie Freeman-Montes’ FAQ for the Oct. 21 discussion. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“This bill has taken approximately 10 years to morph into where it is today,” Tugendhat of Citizens’ Climate Lobby told the commissioners. One key facet of it, he said, is its “protection of low- and middle-income folks.”

More than 60 co-sponsors have signed it, he continued. Among those are 20 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who are known for their strong support of low-income residents.

Freeland Eddie added that another of her concerns is the necessity that a person be a U.S. citizen prior to getting any of the money. People who just have a federal tax ID number, she stressed, would not be eligible.

Tugendhat — who had worked with Sustainability Manager Freeman-Montes on the resolution — explained to Freeland Eddie that the 8% figure in the proposed bill “is really only meant to address the startup costs,” as he understood the situation. The estimated ongoing costs, he added, “are expected to be about 1% and certainly no more than 2% … of the total revenue taken in.”

“Almost all of the funds that are collected will be going back to households,” he emphasized.

As for her second concern: Tugendhat pointed to language in the proposed bill that includes people with federal tax ID numbers among the recipients of the reimbursements, as long as they are “lawful residents.”

Brody told his colleagues on Oct. 21 that, as he had indicated in September, he could not support the resolution. “I don’t think that we should be concerning ourselves with specific federal legislation. I don’t believe that we have the resources and the understanding,” or the access to the level of expertise, to approve the resolution, he added.

When the commissioners decide on federal and state legislative priorities each year, Brody pointed out, those are “appropriately broad.”

Commissioner Shaw countered, “Were it not for the local conversation taking place,” city and county commissioners could not as readily press congressional representatives for action.

He noted that Sarasota County commissioners traveled to Washington, D.C., the previous week to lobby for local initiatives, such as measures to address the algae that causes red tide and the cyanobacteria that cause blue-green algae, with which Florida’s East Coast has suffered off and on for years.

“We are the closest governing body to the people,” Shaw stressed. “It has to come from us in order to direct those [at higher levels of government].”

Darovec of the Sarasota-Bradenton Citizens’ Climate Lobby group also pointed out that she, Tugendhat and Erika Brigham — another Citizen’s Climate Lobby member who addressed the commission on Oct. 21 — would be meeting soon with the energy aide on the staff of U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, the Longboat Key Republican. Darovec said they plan to lobby for the congressman’s support of HR 763. The City Commission’s passage of the resolution would be a big help in that endeavor, Darovec added.

This is the banner on the Citizens’ Climate Lobby website. Image from the nonprofit

Community activism and policy changes

During the discussion, Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch also pointed out, “One of the questions I get most often from community members [is] ‘How can we affect … red tide?’”

When she spoke last week with a group of students attending the Ringling College of Art + Design, she continued, one of their biggest concerns was how to prevent red tide.

In response, she said, she talked about community activism. “This is something we can do here at the local level to impact our economy and our livelihood and our quality of life,” she said of approving the resolution.

“We are supposed to advocate on a federal level on behalf of our local citizens,” Freeland Eddie replied. Nonetheless, she added, she could not support the resolution unless the references to the proposed House bill were removed.

“This bill’s going to get changed, no matter what,” Mayor Alpert pointed out. “We don’t know what this final act’s going to be.”

The focus, Alpert emphasized, is support of the policy in the bill.