Deal or No Deal: Part II

Yesterday, we discussed the prospect of the 115th Congress pursuing carbon-pricing legislation, and the compromises that would likely have to be made with corporate interests in order to ensure that such legislation made it through the House and Senate. As it turns out, Washington, D.C., isn’t the only place that could see movement on climate policy.

For the past few months, there have been competing efforts to have Washington state follow the lead of British Columbia and implement a strong carbon-pricing policy; a bit of background on the Washington state fight can be found here. One such effort focused on the implementation of a revenue-neutral carbon-tax, with the idea being that such a policy would appeal to both conservatives and progressives. At one point, it appeared that this mission would not be accomplished:

The sponsors of a Washington initiative to tax carbon emissions say they’re considering not turning in a final batch of about 100,000 voter signatures by December 31 that would all but assure the measure would go before the legislature in January.

Such a move — gathering more than enough signatures to qualify an initiative and then not submitting them — would be unusual, if not unprecedented, in the history of Washington initiatives and referenda.

In a letter to supporters posted to the Carbon Washington website Monday night, Initiative 732 sponsor Yoram Bauman said an alternative carbon pricing measure has emerged that polls better.

“We are leaning towards embracing the alternative measure as the best shot of getting climate action in Washington State in 2016,” Bauman wrote.

He said details of the competing measure are still being worked out, but that it would be a “carbon fee” with significant portions of the revenues going to support clean energy and clean water projects.

In October the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, backed by labor and environmental interests, announced its intention to pursue an alternative carbon-pricing ballot measure. The Alliance conducted the polling that Bauman references in his blog post…

Initiative 732 is an initiative to the legislature that’s been billed as a revenue neutral tax on carbon. It would impose a $25 per ton charge on carbon emissions while at the same time cutting the state sales tax by one-percent. The measure would also fund a working families tax rebate and a reduction in the business and occupation tax on manufacturing.

Bauman, who earlier this year proclaimed, “I am increasingly convinced that the path to climate action is through the Republican Party,” suddenly noticed a detour sign up ahead:

We still believe in bipartisan climate action, and in fact we believe that there is a clear bipartisan path forward in Washington State: Pass a revenue-neutral carbon tax like I-732, and then follow British Columbia’s harmonious path forward by tweaking the measure as needed around the edges to address concerns as they arise. Doing so would eliminate the need for the less effective regulatory mandates that are currently being pursued due to the legislative stalemate on climate action.

Unfortunately, the enthusiasm for bipartisan climate action through a revenue-neutral tax shift is not at the level we had hoped to see after nine months of campaigning:

* We have tried hard to get support from the business community for I-732, but the reaction so far has been tepid at best: the most common response has been an expression of interest in “further discussions.” Many of these business interests like the various alternative policies even less, but that hasn’t translated into support for I-732 or even support for a commitment to a good-faith discussion in the legislature about carbon pricing.

* We have tried hard to get support for I-732 from civic groups like the League of Women Voters, from think tanks like Sightline, from advocacy groups like the (left-leaning) Washington Budget and Policy Center and the (right-leaning) Washington Policy Center, and from editorial boards like the Seattle Times. We have had some successes (UU Voices for Justice, Seattle Business magazine, the Olympian, the Spokane Spokesman-Review), but also many many deferrals.

* We have tried hard to get support from progressives for I-732, but many of them want to integrate solutions for other very real social problems into climate action. Those solutions require revenue, which has led them to oppose our revenue-neutral policy, despite its clear improvement in the financial situation of low-income families. One Democratic legislator also went so far as to state that his side of the aisle “would oppose I-732 if it was even one dollar revenue-negative.”

* We have tried very hard to get support from conservatives for I-732, but we don’t have much to show for it despite offering a simple, efficient, market-based, revenue-neutral policy.

Anyone who watched Episode 5 of Showtime’s 2014 documentary Years of Living Dangerously already knew that Republicans in Washington state are the sort of folks who hate Al Gore more than they love their children and grandchildren, so the lack of Republican support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax effort there isn’t all that surprising. Yet those who believe that Republicans will eventually come around have decided to forge ahead:

Our Executive Committee met today and discussed an updated (more detailed) version of the alternative proposal. We debated the issues and considered arguments on both sides raised by the Executive Committee and by our grassroots base. After almost 3 hours it became clear that the Executive Committee would not accept the alternative proposal in its current form and that there was no chance of modifying the alternative proposal in the very short time frame remaining that would change the Executive Committee’s decision.

We’ll see if this effort ultimately succeeds in 2016. The dream of a carbon-pricing policy that unites the right and the left is a noble one indeed–but as Langston Hughes asked decades ago, what happens to a dream deferred? Doesn’t it just dry up, like a raisin in the sun?

UPDATE: More from Patrick Mazza, the Seattle Times and Seattle Weekly.

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D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.