A Taxing Situation

Since late-December, we have been following the grassroots effort in Washington state to implement a revenue-neutral carbon tax to reduce emissions. This effort has run into a number of setbacks, largely stemming from a failure to attract vocal support from conservatives and Republicans, despite the marketing of the proposal as the best way to overcome the state’s partisan divide on climate.

The carbon-tax effort has also struggled to attract support from progressives and Democrats, who are concerned that the proposal isn’t really “revenue-neutral.” The latest news from the Evergreen State suggests that this effort may well be doomed:

[T]he Washington State Democratic Party [has gone] on record as opposed to CarbonWA’s I-732, joining the Washington State Labor Council and [the Washington Council of Machinists] in the no camp. I-732 is a complex tax swap proposal that would levy a carbon tax while also reducing sales and business & occupation taxes.

CarbonWA and other I-732 proponents contend that their tax swap is “revenue neutral” (meaning it would not increase or decrease state revenue). Nonpartisan legislative staff and the Department of Revenue don’t agree. According to DOR’s calculations, I-732 would reduce revenue by nearly $1 billion over the next four years. (That’s billion, with a b.) CarbonWA insists DOR’s analysis is erroneous, and that the initiative would ultimately be “approximately revenue neutral.”

But the Washington State Democratic Party has decided it doesn’t want to take a chance on I-732 and has formally come out against the measure…

Leaders of CarbonWA have described support for their initiative as “bipartisan” and have said they crafted the initiative to appeal to voters across the ideological spectrum, but CarbonWA’s endorsements page doesn’t list a single organization affiliated with the Republican Party or active in the conservative movement.

And, as even CarbonWA has admitted, polling suggests right-leaning voters in Washington are incredibly hostile to the idea of levying a carbon tax.

It will be an undisputed propaganda victory for the forces of climate-change denial if this effort fails in a supposedly blue state. Opponents of carbon pricing are already thrilled by the stalling of carbon-tax proposals in Vermont and Massachusetts; just imagine how much gloating the fossil fuel industry and its acolytes will engage in if the Evergreen State effort also collapses.

Late last month, environmental journalist Peter Dykstra marked the tenth anniversary of President George W. Bush’s proclamation that “America is addicted to oil.” Nothing the successes and failures of the climate movement in the decade since Bush first acknowledged America’s addiction to polluting petroleum, Dykstra observed:

A favored goal in climate policy these days is to keep oil in the ground. Climate science tells us that that is essential to minimizing climate impacts. It’s an unspeakably lofty goal.

But climate activists make it even more difficult if there’s no recognition of the inertia, economics, ideology and self-interest that stand in the way. We’re still addicted.

Not only that, but the events in Washington state demonstrate that we might never make it to rehab.

UPDATE: More from Yoram Bauman, Joe Ryan and Sam Ross-Brown.

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.