The state Senate is doing its best to ignore a plan that would tax big polluters to pay for transportation. But it’s catching on with a group that used to matter in democracy: the people.
Lawmakers often call the state Capitol in Olympia “the people’s house,” where they do the people’s business. But increasingly what they seem to be doing is business’s business.
Prime example: There’s one idea for how to pay for big transportation projects this year that the public really seems to like. It also happens to be the one that key lawmakers say they have no intention of considering.
Why? Because business interests, funded mostly by big oil, have mounted a scare campaign against it.
It turns out there is surprisingly strong public support for the controversial idea of taxing major air polluters as a way of paying for roads, bridges and new transit, according to a new survey of Puget Sound region voters.
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Yet the idea was rejected before the legislative session even started by Republicans who control the state Senate.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s idea of putting a statewide cap on emissions and then charging fees for carbon pollution has turned out to be, so far, a runaway winner with the public. You’d never guess that by listening to lawmakers, who scarcely talk about it after it was declared dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate.
A new survey released last week of 1,500 voters across the four counties of King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap contains some eye-popping results. Granted this is not the whole state, but the four counties do make up 55 percent of the state’s population.
The survey found that not only is “traffic/getting around” by far the biggest issue for local voters, but overwhelmingly they want the state to try new ways of paying for it. Ways that take into account carbon emissions.
When asked to assess a menu of seven possible ways to raise money for transportation projects, a whopping 80 percent of those surveyed said they support carbon-pollution fees.
In contrast only 42 percent liked raising the gas tax, which is the current plan in the Legislature. Even fewer said they favor tolls or pay-per-mile plans.
“The gap between the public and the Legislature on this issue is big, and growing,” says KC Golden, an adviser for the policy group Climate Solutions, which supports Inslee’s cap-and-trade proposal.
“It’s just a hard sell to people around here that dependence on fossil fuels is a sound long-term strategy. So I think people are definitely open to looking at alternatives to the old way of doing things.”
Inslee’s sales pitch has been that we need to raise money for transportation projects, and also to cut back on greenhouse-gas emissions. So why not do both at once? His legislation would cap statewide carbon emissions, impose $1 billion a year in charges on polluters and send the proceeds mostly to transportation.
The current transportation plan in the state Senate would raise the gasoline tax by 12 cents per gallon. This is fine, but carries with it almost none of the potential environmental benefits.
It’s possible Inslee’s polluter fees are so popular because people don’t know enough about them, or mistakenly believe they won’t cost them any money. Severin Borenstein, an economist in California where there is a similar program already up and running, said the fees would be passed on to consumers in higher energy and gas costs. But in California, the price increase has been only about 9 to 10 cents per gallon.
“It’s been nowhere near as high as the oil companies were predicting,” Borenstein said (an oil-industry doom campaign had warned of 75-cent-per-gallon price spikes). “But it’s also too soon to judge,” as California only applied its carbon pricing to fuels on Jan. 1.
I doubt Inslee’s plan is the final answer, or that the public’s attitudes are settled. But people obviously are interested in exploring an idea that could improve mobility and hold down emissions. What does it say that the state Senate is just ignoring it?
It’s no way to run a state. Not if you’re working for the state’s people anyway.