OLYMPIA — With time running out in the 2021 legislative session, Washington House lawmakers Friday voted to put a price on carbon emissions. And in search of a deal to get a big climate win to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk, they also promised a 5-cent increase of the gas tax that would fund a new transportation-spending package.
With the legislative session scheduled to end Sunday, the combination of those two policies is a late-stage attempt to advance a “grand bargain” sought by Democratic lawmakers to pass both clean-energy legislation and a statewide transportation package.
The version of Senate Bill 5126 that passed Friday also states that the carbon-pricing plan will take effect in January 2023, but only if lawmakers have approved new transportation spending by then.
Inslee acknowledged this week that a package won’t get done by Sunday.
Before it goes to the governor, the bill must head back to the Senate. It remains unclear whether Senate Democrats — who barely voted the original version out of that chamber — will approve the latest version.
Still, the passage of carbon pricing — for the first time in either chamber, and after voters twice rejected proposed carbon taxes at the ballot box — represents a significant step forward on clean-energy policy.
If implemented, Washington would become the second state — behind California — to have a comprehensive carbon-pricing law stretching across swaths of the economy in an effort to slow climate change.
“We’ve solved problems like this before, lead in gasoline, the ozone hole, acid rain,” said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, in a speech on the House floor. He added later: “It’s not too late for us to get this right.”
SB 5126 passed the Democratic-controlled House on Friday on a vote of 54-43. As they have before, Republicans on Friday protested the policy as ineffective and a burden on businesses.
During the floor debate, Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, cited the pollution allowances that companies will need to pay and the gas-tax increase as burdensome tax increases wrapped inside environmental policy.
“And it’s bad news for every single person in Washington state,” said Dye.
If the transportation package were approved by lawmakers and Inslee, a new 5-cent tax would be added to the 67.8 cents Washingtonians currently pay in state and federal taxes on gasoline.
The proposal creates a “cap-and-invest” program to gradually set tighter limits on carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases. It requires polluters to decrease emissions steadily, or buy allowances for pollution.
The money collected would go toward projects that include, among other things, energy conservation, transportation and assistance for a transition to clean energy.
The House version also adds requirements that air quality be monitored in communities suffering disproportionately from health and environmental impacts from pollution.
That component is “poised to reduce health-harming pollution in communities overburdened with pollution for decades,” David Mendoza of The Nature Conservancy in Washington said in a statement. Taken all together, the bill “ensures we will reduce all types of emissions, invests in natural climate solutions, and helps create a future that’s more resilient and built on a foundation of environmental justice.”
All year long, the carbon-cap proposal has been tangled up in the idea of a “grand bargain” that would produce both major clean-energy legislation and a big-ticket transportation package.
Inslee on Thursday acknowledged that legislators wouldn’t reach a deal on a new transportation package by Sunday’s regularly scheduled end of the session.
“The chambers were not able to reach an agreement that could pass this year, but that’s not reduced either our appetite or my commitment to getting a package,” said Inslee in a regularly scheduled news conference on the state’s COVID-19 response.
He cited the need for a new Highway 2 trestle in Snohomish County and a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River that connects Washington and Oregon, as well as more funding for infrastructure maintenance.
In an email Friday, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee wrote that the governor’s office is “reviewing the developments” of the proposal passed off the House floor.
“As with everything in the last few days prior to the end of the legislative session, we need to wait and see what the final outcome will be,” she added.