Vermont Public Interest Research Group is seeking summer workers who can raise money and warn Vermonters about climate change. But some lawmakers claim that the group’s annual canvassing drive uses deceptive tactics.
It’s the time of year when VPIRG recruits college students and recent graduates to join its summer canvassing program.
According to the environmentalist group’s new job posting, workers can earn between $6,900 and $13,600 from May to September by biking, camping and walking door-to-door to sign up new members. Those accepted into the four-month-long program will be “leading the way on bold action to combat climate change and strengthen our local economy,” the posting states.
But some lawmakers say VPIRG used last summer’s canvassing effort to falsely portray Vermonters as carbon tax supporters, both in a postcard-related lobbying effort and in a high-profile media event at the Vermont Statehouse.
“Some of (my constituents) said they absolutely did not remember anything about someone stopping by,” state Rep. Mark Higley, R-Lowell, told Vermont Watchdog. “Others had a vague remembrance of somebody possibly coming by on a bike, but they didn’t authorize them to put their name on a postcard.”
Higley became aware of the issue after he responded to postcards delivered to him by Energy Independent Vermont, a broad coalition of which VPIRG is a member.
As Higley called constituents whose names were on the cards, some said they didn’t sign any cards. Others said they didn’t know the door-to-door solicitation had anything to do with supporting a carbon tax.
“The ones that had no recollection of this at all were upset that their name, address and phone numbers were used,” Higley said.
On Nov. 30, as the United Nations Climate Change Conference began in Paris, representatives of VPIRG and Energy Independent Vermont stood on the steps of the Vermont Statehouse with 180 boxes of postcards and petitions addressed to lawmakers. The roughly 25,000 postcards in the boxes – gathered during the summer canvassing drive – were said to show local support for a carbon tax.
“I called six people and they all said no (they don’t support the tax),” said state Rep. Bob Bancroft, another lawmaker who contacted people whose names were identified on the postcards. “They said if they really knew (what the canvassers) were talking about, then they never would have signed it.”
The Westford Republican said some people had strong reactions when they found out their names were used for VPIRG’s carbon tax lobbying effort.
“Two of them were, to put it mildly, extremely upset. … It wasn’t emphasized to these people that they were talking about as much as an 88-cents tax on gasoline.”
Marilyn Thomas, one of the people VPIRG used in its lobbying campaign, said she was misrepresented.
“They worded it in a way that I didn’t understand it – it was over the phone,” she said. “I would not have signed for a carbon tax – I don’t want any more taxes.”
While Thomas said she generally supports VPIRG, she added, “Sometimes they go over the top – this is one of the things they go over the top with.”
Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, defended the summer canvassing program on Wednesday in an email to Vermont Watchdog.
“Each postcard and petition – including name, phone, email, address, town and zip – was filled out by the individual, or in rare cases, by the petitioner who got the information directly from the person whose name is on the petition,” Burns wrote.
Burns pointed to language on the cards which asks lawmakers to “tackle global warming and save Vermonters money by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.” Other language suggests “putting a price on carbon pollution and creating an Energy Independence Fund to help us save money, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and create jobs.”
While such references might make obscure reference to VPIRG’s carbon tax plan, it is unlikely that Vermonters outside the organization would see a connection.
Burns nevertheless called VPIRG’s canvassing program “the type of democratic engagement envisioned over 200 years ago when the right to petition the government was enshrined in the First Amendment.”
Bancroft said VPIRG’s canvassing isn’t a valid petition drive because people don’t understand what they are signing.
“To the extent that their hope was this would have some sort of influence on me, well, it failed, because it’s unreliable. Based on just my limited conversations with some of the people around here, it is unreliable.”
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