Carbon Tax Keeps Popping Up In Divided Washington Legislature

Mar 17, 2017
Originally published on March 17, 2017 5:01 pm

President Donald Trump has made it clear climate change is not a priority for his administration, but it is still a top issue for Democratic governors and lawmakers in Washington and Oregon.

In Oregon, there’s talk of a cap-and-trade system. And in Washington, the idea of a carbon tax keeps popping up as Democrats and Republicans face off over the budget.

Last fall, voters in Washington were asked to enact a first-in-the-nation carbon tax. But Initiative 732 went down to defeat. That didn’t stop Washington Gov. Jay Inslee from proposing a tax on carbon to help pay for education a few weeks later.

“It taxes carbon pollution that harms our kids and imperils the planet,” Inslee said.

Businesses concerned

Last Tuesday, the Democratic chair of Washington’s House Environment Committee held a public hearing on a yet another carbon tax proposal.

“I think this bill is our best shot at starting to reduce carbon emissions to a safe level in this legislative session,” Democrat Joe Fitzgibbon said.

In other words, Washington Democrats -- and their allies in the labor and environmental movements -- aren’t letting go of the idea of a carbon tax. They chalk up last November’s defeat to a flawed initiative, not a lack of public support. And they say another attempt at the ballot is likely.

Fitzgibbon, the House Environment Committee chair, said business leaders have told him they’re concerned about a future ballot measure.

“And I’ve told them they should be concerned,” he said. “I think that’s a very likely outcome. I don’t think the people of this state want to sit back and wait for the legislature to take action on something that they feel is urgent.”

Cap or tax?

Fitzgibbon also sees another potential leverage point: the governor’s Clean Air Rule. It’s a cap on industrial carbon emissions that Inslee imposed last year through executive action. Business groups are challenging the rule in court.

Fitzgibbon said a carbon tax could replace the Clean Air Rule.

“And so my message to business leaders has been you know you could be part of the solution here, you could be part of a bargain or you could roll the dice on an initiative as well as on the rule,” he said.

Fitzgibbon said he tried to craft his proposed carbon tax to address concerns raised by some businesses. For instance, industries that use a lot of energy and are trade dependent -- like steel recyclers -- would get special consideration.

But at the public hearing for the bill, it was clear Fitzgibbon had not won them over.

There are also provisions in Fitzgibbon’s bill that might appeal to Republicans -- especially those from rural Washington. Some of the money the tax would raise would go to pay for water infrastructure and forest health projects. But as with the business lobby, so far Republicans aren’t persuaded.

“You pick winners and losers in a carbon tax,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler -- who’s also an eastern Washington farmer.

“As we compete with other states and other countries, we have a carbon tax and they don’t, we will lose jobs,” Schoesler said.

‘It will likely be on the ballot again'

But you get a more nuanced take on a carbon tax from Republican Sen. John Braun, the chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee.

“I would characterize myself as skeptical,” Braun said on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program. “Certainly there’s not support right now. And I don’t know how that changes in the future. I’ve said very publicly that I think that it’s been on the ballot once, it will likely be on the ballot again, we should be talking about it, we should be smart about it, but I don’t think it’s in our immediate future.”

The fact Braun is even open to discussing a carbon tax might reflect the district he represents. It includes the Chehalis River Basin where flood mitigation -- including a new flood control dam --could cost several hundred million dollars.

Braun’s legislative seatmate -- Republican state Rep. Richard DeBolt -- also signaled at least an openness to considering some sort of carbon pricing program.

“I think flooding is one of the most important things to the people in my district,” DeBolt said. “If we needed to find a solution for it, I’m willing to look at all solutions.”

But even Democrats like Fitzgibbon don’t expect a grand bargain on a carbon tax this year.

“I think it’s possible. I wouldn’t rule it out. I wouldn’t bank on it at this time though.”

Schoesler was more blunt. He called the chances of a carbon tax this year “slim and none.”

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