Carbon tax, defeated in the Washington, to be on the ballot

Source: Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Third time’s the charm. That’s what proponents of a carbon tax in Washington state are hoping.

A coalition of environmental, labor and minority groups filed a ballot initiative with Washington’s secretary of state late last week, paving the way for advocates of a carbon price to make their case to voters this fall.

If they gather the nearly 260,000 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot, as is widely expected, it will mark the third time Washington has seriously entertained a carbon tax since 2016. Voters defeated a ballot initiative that year. The idea was defeated again last week, when the state Senate declined calls from Gov. Jay Inslee (D) to take up carbon pricing.

This year’s ballot question more closely resembles the failed legislative proposal than the 2016 initiative. That measure called for imposing a price on carbon and using the revenue to offset other taxes.

The 2018 plan seeks a carbon fee of $15 per metric ton. It would increase by $2 annually until 2035, or until the state is on track to meet its midcentury goal of cutting emissions 50 percent of 1990 levels.

It contains several notable differences from the 2016 proposal. First, proponents are calling it a fee rather than a tax. The semantics might appear insignificant, but advocates say the new wording marks a shift because it means carbon revenues would be spent on measures to reduce pollution.

That hints at the second difference. Unlike the 2016 question, this year’s measure would use proceeds from a fee to fund a wide array of programs, from clean energy investments to climate resilience and transition assistance programs.

“It is our belief that the people of Washington are ready for action on climate change in 2018,” said Becky Kelley, who leads the Washington Environmental Council. “While it’s a shame the Legislature wasn’t able to enact a good law, the people can step in and take it on.”

Washington’s dalliance with a carbon tax has thrust it to the forefront of the national conversation on climate change. No state has adopted a carbon tax, making Washington something of a bellwether for a national climate policy (Climatewire, Jan. 22).

Advocates can point to several encouraging signs. President Trump is deeply unpopular in the Evergreen State, and Democrats are motivated to vote in this year’s midterm elections. The Seattle-based Elway Poll found that Democrats have a 10-point advantage in the generic ballot, enough to put some solidly Republican congressional seats in play.

Carbon tax supporters are also quick to note that this year’s failure occurred during a short legislative session dominated by talk about the state budget, gun control and open records.

And where environmentalists and Democrats were badly divided over the 2016 ballot measure due to disagreements over how to spend the revenue, this time they are united.

The ballot initiative was filed by the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy and counts the Washington State Labor Council and Front and Centered, an environmental justice group, as supporters.

Inslee, who opposed the previous ballot question, also signaled support.

“While we fell just short of getting a carbon pricing bill through in this short session, the demand for action continues to grow,” Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee wrote in an email. “This initiative is reflective of that momentum, and the governor will continue meeting with proponents and engaged businesses to understand this newest proposal.”

The hurdles are nevertheless daunting. While Democrats might be more likely to vote this year, that doesn’t mean they’ll support a carbon tax. The idea failed in the Legislature despite the fact that Democrats control all three branches of government in Olympia.

When the Elway Poll surveyed Washington voters on their legislative priorities heading into the 2018 session, just 7 percent of respondents said environmental issues were their top priority, and 1 percent said energy was their most important issue.

It also comes as Washington plans to increase property taxes in some parts of the state to fund education spending, though a promising revenue report now has lawmakers talking about ways to curtail those increases.

“You wonder how much tax people are willing to take, but it depends on how the question is asked,” said Mary Catherine McAleer, who oversees environmental policy for the Association of Washington Business, the state’s largest trade group and a longtime opponent of carbon pricing proposals.

She acknowledged a widespread desire in Washington to combat climate change but questioned how much a state with a hydrocentric power sector can reasonably be asked to reduce emissions without affecting its economy.

“The public will pay this in the form of increased energy prices in the form of what is essentially a gas tax,” McAleer said.

Transportation accounts for 57 percent of Washington’s carbon emissions, compared with 17 percent and 13 percent from the industrial and power sectors, respectively.

The ballot measure would exempt energy-intensive, trade-exposed industries like Washington’s steel, aluminum and paper companies from the tax. Providing exemptions makes sense because those industries could simply take their emissions, and jobs, elsewhere, advocates said.

They argued that the benefits of the plan would outweigh the costs, accelerating the shift to a clean energy economy, bolstering forest and aquatic ecosystems, and directing investment to communities most disadvantaged by climate change.

“We acknowledge there is a cost, but in the same way we make investments in our homes, to make them great places to live that we can be proud of,” said Mike Stevens, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Washington state chapter.