Should Initiative 1631, the “carbon fee” measure, make it to the November ballot, it will get plenty of opposition from well-funded opponents in the energy industry and by some voters unhappy with tax increases.
CLIMATE action continues to prove elusive in the Washington state Legislature, so all eyes now turn to Initiative 1631, the “carbon fee” ballot measure filed last month by Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy.
The herculean task in front of the group is one we are quite familiar with: We were co-chairs of the Carbon Washington, Initiative 732 campaign, the first-ever carbon tax ballot measure effort in the United States.
We are writing not to re-litigate I-732 — which lost, in 2016, in part because many members of the Alliance opposed our centrist approach — but rather to survey the path ahead and to make sure that climate activists who wish to support I-1631 and its “unite the left” approach do so with eyes open. (Full disclosure: Although we support Carbon Washington, we are no longer on the board and our opinions are our own.)
The Alliance’s most immediate challenges are getting on the ballot and then winning in November. The good news is that I-1631 was designed to have voter-friendly ballot language: it’s called a “pollution fee” rather than a “carbon tax,” and the revenue is allocated to programs that poll well, like promoting clean energy. The bad news is that it will attract opposition from anti-tax groups, well-funded opponents in the energy industry, and voters fed up with recent increases in property taxes, sales taxes and car tabs.
If I-1631 succeeds, it will then have to succeed on two other fronts: as policy and as precedent.
Succeeding as precedent means laying a foundation for national action. What’s fundamentally important about climate action in Washington state, which accounts for about 0.3 percent of global carbon emissions, is increasing the odds of climate action in Washington, D.C., and that will happen under the Alliance’s unite-the-left approach only if the Democrats can build a national majority considerably stronger than the one currently led by the Republicans. That’s a tall order.
Succeeding as policy means, first and foremost, actually reducing emissions. This may be a challenge for I-1631 because it exempts the TransAlta coal plant in Centralia, the state’s only coal-fired power plant. Why? Because of a deal that the Sierra Club, Climate Solutions, and other Alliance members made with TransAlta to close the coal plant by 2025. That exemption is problematic in and of itself — exempting coal but not natural gas could increase carbon emissions — but it will be much more damaging if out-of-state coal plants serving Washington state successfully argue in court that their emissions should be exempt because the U.S. Constitution requires fairness in interstate commerce.
Succeeding as policy also means addressing the pocketbook impacts of the initiative, especially for low-income households who will be paying more for gasoline and utilities. (Calling it a “fee” rather than a “tax” doesn’t make it any less regressive.) The way I-1631 seeks to alleviate this financial burden is with big-government programs. There’s no other way to describe it, and there’s also not much evidence that these programs work terribly well.
A recent study in Michigan, co-authored by Obama administration economist Michael Greenstone, found that the federal Weatherization Assistance Program reduced energy consumption by less than one-third of what models projected. It was even hard to get households to sign up, with “encouragement” spending of $1,000 per household needed to boost the participation rate to a paltry 6 percent.
I-732 was an attempt at a different approach. It addressed pocketbook concerns — and made the tax code more progressive by pairing the carbon tax with offsetting tax reductions, including a 1-cent reduction in the state sales tax and a 25 percent match of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income working families. I-732 was endorsed by three sitting Republican state senators along with scores of Democrats, and its centrist approach continues to hold some promise: In Utah, for example, three state legislators — a Democrat and two Republicans — introduced the first-ever bipartisan carbon tax bill in the U.S., a bill that follows the spirit of I-732.
But, of course, I-732 lost. We took our swing at the ball, and now it’s the Alliance’s turn. We intend to stay out of their way, but if they fail then a I-732-like approach may look promising for 2020. The debate about carbon pricing — between a unite-the-left approach and a bipartisan approach — is perhaps just beginning.