A Steep Road to Victory for Carbon Tax Initiative

Carbon WA--I-732, an initiative to the state legislature to institute a supposedly revenue-neutral tax on carbon--will submit its 350,000 signatures to the Secretary of State tomorrow, despite (another) last minute plea from climate justice activists.

Submitting the signatures is either a bold or reckless decision, depending on who you talk to. While the Carbon WA campaign has more than enough signatures to reach the legislature, insiders say it’s unlikely to pass there--meaning it will bounce onto the November state ballot, where early polling suggests it will have mixed chances of passing.

Some context: recent efforts by the governor and some statehouse Democrats to curb state carbon emissions have failed (carbon and other greenhouse emissions are the major cause of human-driven climate change, a potentially apocalyptic phenomenon). In response, economist Yoram Bauman launched Carbon Washington, which proposes to tax carbon emissions and use the money to cut taxes on sales, business, and working families. The idea is to discourage a bad thing (polluting) by making it more expensive and encourage good things (the economy and family solvency) by making them less expensive. The grassroots campaign gathered more than enough signatures to send the proposal to the state legislature, which can either pass it or send it to the November ballot for a popular vote.

The fact that it’s revenue-neutral makes Carbon WA unpopular among the many well-established environmental, social justice, and labor groups who make up the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy. They say climate policy must include subsidies for marginalized populations, such as migrant farmworkers, who bear the worst effects of climate change. They also say Carbon WA bypassed stakeholders in those communities when it drafted its initiative, which is based on a tax already in place in Vancouver, B.C.

“He didn’t bring anyone to the table besides economists, lawyers, and I believe he talked to the Washington Budget and Policy Center. But he didn’t speak to the community,” says Sarra Tekola, an activist who also works in councilmember Mike O’Brien’s office. “They went on a limb by themselves, did it by themselves, and they’re wondering now why they are standing by themselves.”

Critics also point to confidential data that shows Carbon WA’s proposal polling significantly lower than an alternative that uses carbon tax revenue to pay for things like renewable energy subsidies and aid to affected communities. Bauman and his cohort had hoped that their proposal’s revenue neutrality would attract bipartisan and business support, but so far they’ve been disappointed.

“Where the momentum for carbon and climate solutions is, [is] on the Left,” says Tekola. “And Yoram thought that he could compromise the Left to get the Right on board. The Right never got on board.”

The resulting proposal, she says, “is not acceptable. We cannot accept the Republican solution to climate change when they don’t believe in climate change.”

The prospect of a compromise between the two groups appeared at hand when Carbon WA announced four days before Christmas that it was negotiating with the Alliance for a deal in which Carbon WA would not turn in its signatures, and the two groups would work together circulating petitions for a jointly-crafted initiative to the people (which has a later deadline for signature submission). However, those negotiations ultimately went nowhere and Carbon WA decided to forge ahead.

Yesterday, a second appeal to Carbon WA at its office by about a dozen activists, including Tekola, also failed. The activists added to earlier criticisms an analysis just released by the state that says Carbon WA’s measure would actually be revenue negative--that is, it would lose the state about about $675 million, according to the Seattle Times. Bauman disputes the analysis. “In our opinion the model and assumptions used by legislative staff to review I-732 do not accurately reflect our policy,” he says. “We think that further review will show that I-732 is the best chance for our state to reduce carbon emissions while helping Washington families.” (You can see the details of Bauman’s projections here.)

However that may be, Carbon WA’s route to victory is fraught. Key legislators say the measure has about a snowball’s chance in hell of getting passed through an increasingly dysfunctional statehouse, and if it gets bounced to the ballot it will likely be heavily opposed by the fossil fuel industry.

Reuven Carlyle, Democratic chair of the House finance committee who is departing for a state senate seat, says he’s optimistic about climate policy getting bipartisan support in the long term, but success during 2016’s two-month session is a longshot. “The sentiment of putting a price on carbon is absolutely growing, from the left and the right,” he says. “Whether or not we could muster the votes in an era of divided government, with the Republicans so fiercely protective of the current approach, I think is questionable at best.”

Joe Fitzgibbon, Democratic chair of the House environmental committee, agrees. “It’s very hard for me to see a scenario in which it passes the legislature. What I’ve told advocates from Carbon WA since early on is, if you can find me a single Republican senator who is willing to say that they support the proposal, then we should have a serious conversation...But if there’s not even one Republican senator that’s willing to say that they’d vote for it, then it’s hard for me to imagine in the House spending a lot time on something that we know won’t go anywhere in the senate.”

The House, of course, is held by Democrats, while Republicans control the Senate. Fitzgibbon acknowledges that some Democrats also have misgivings about Carbon WA.

Doug Ericksen, the Republican chair of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, implies he’ll oppose the tax shift. “My basic viewpoint is that if you want to build or manufacture in America, you can do it in Washington state currently with a lower carbon footprint than pretty much anywhere else, and so we should be encouraging people to come to Washington to create manufacturing jobs. I think that adding a 25 percent tax on energy would discourage businesses from locating in Washington to create good, blue-collar, family wage, manufacturing jobs.”

But senator, doesn’t the cut to business and sales taxes stimulate business? Ericksen says he has concerns about “the government...trying to pick and choose those kinds of things.”

According to the Sightline Institute, Ericksen is the legislature’s third-largest recipient of political contributions from fossil fuel companies. During a phone interview, Ericksen thrice declined to affirm that human-caused climate change is real, replying, “The climate’s always changing.”

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