Washington state voters reject carbon-fee initiative

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1 of 5 Sophia Hoffacker listens to the announcement that I-1631 likely will not pass at the watch party at the Arctic Hotel in downtown Seattle for an election night watch party. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)
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2 of 5 Jessica Escott listens to the announcement that I-1631 likely will not pass at the Arctic Hotel in downtown Seattle for an election night watch party. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)
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3 of 5 Taylor Rogers (left) and April Allderice check election results during the I-1631, the initiative to put a fee on carbon, watch party at the Arctic Hotel in downtown Seattle. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)
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4 of 5 Jen Hagenow, Mary Myslewicz, Cecile Gernez, and Ellany Kayce, Supporters of I-1631, gather around a table to watch the election resules roll in at the Yes on I-1631 watch party at the Arctic Hotel in downtown Seattle. (Rebekah Welch / The Seattle Times)
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5 of 5 Car and truck emissions are among the biggest sources of greenhouse-gas pollution in Washington state. Initiative 1631 would impose a fee on emissions. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Washington state voters on Tuesday rejected Initiative 1631, a proposed carbon fee on fossil-fuel emissions that spurred the biggest ballot-measure spending spree in state history.

As of Tuesday evening, with more than 1.9 million votes tallied from all 39 counties, 56.3 percent of the voters opposed the initiative, while 43.7 percent supported the measure. There are many more votes to be counted but the lead was unlikely to be overtaken.

Proponents, however, said that the battle to put a price on Washington’s fossil fuel emissions is not over. They already are thinking ahead to getting a bill passed next year in Olympia “where we know we have legislative champions who are prepared to keep pushing on this issue,” said Mike Stevens, state director of the Nature Conservancy, a major backer of I-1631.

On Wednesday, Nick Abraham, a spokesman, said the campaign conceded defeat. “The issue is not going away, and neither are we,” said the statement released by the proponent’s coalition. “We stand ready to fight in next year’s legislature and beyond.”

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Though opponents were largely bankrolled by the oil industry, Dana Bieber, the spokeswoman for the No on 1631 campaign, called the election results a “clear victory for working families, consumers, small businesses and family farmers across our state” against what she called a “costly, unfair and ineffective energy tax.”

I-1631 would have created a first-in-the nation carbon fee. It would have taken effect in 2020, rising year after year to finance a multibillion-dollar spending surge intended to cut Washington greenhouse-gas emissions. The initiative reflected proponents’ faith that an activist government can play a key role in speeding up a transition to cleaner fuels.

The fee would have raised more than $1 billion annually by 2023, with spending decisions to be made by a governor-appointed board as well as the state’s utilities.

The measure received national attention during a year when the Trump administration pulled further back from federal efforts to combat climate change. Fierce wildfires and hurricanes underscored what scientists say is the growing likelihood of extreme weather events as the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases rises in the atmosphere.

I-1631 received high-profile endorsements that included Gov. Jay Inslee, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who donated $1 million to the Yes on 1631 campaign.

The oil industry contributed most of the more than $31 million raised by the No on 1631 campaign. That blew away the previous record of $24.34 million raised by opponents of a 2013 ballot measure — Initiative 522 — that unsuccessfully sought to require labeling of genetically modified food.

Those contributions financed an avalanche of attack ads that warned Washington families would pay a costly new energy tax, while some industrial polluters would be exempt from the fees.

Proponents put together a wide-ranging coalition that included some labor unions, tribes and social-justice groups, and raised more than $15 million in contributions.

This is the second consecutive statewide election in which Washington voters weighed in on a proposed price on fossil fuels. In 2016, they rejected a carbon tax, which would have been coupled with a cut in the state sales tax in an effort to be revenue neutral.


Reporter Michelle Baruchman also contributed to this story.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com; .