State of the State: A house divided

State of the State: A house divided
In his January 9 State of the State speech, Governor Jay Inslee praised bipartisan accomplishments in recent years while promoting his carbon pricing plan that would add a $20-per-ton tax on emissions generated by fuels or power plants. Despite a Democrat-majority in both chambers, his plan could prove a tough sell. Photo: TVW.org

Governor Jay Inslee’s January 9 State of the State speech mixed celebratory rhetoric for recent bipartisan achievements with renewed calls for climate-change-related proposals that in past years have encountered legislative gridlock.

Despite Democrat control of both chambers this session, Inslee’s environmental agenda may find lawmakers on both sides less than enthusiastic and searching for alternatives.

Still, the setting was a far cry from last year’s mood, when an evenly divided legislature struggled to find new revenue sources to pay for billions in additional education spending to meet a 2018 deadline that would also placate demands from both sides of the aisle. After the longest legislative session in state history, lawmakers finally passed a 2017-19 operating budget that relied primarily on a state-local property tax swap to cover K-12 funding obligations.

“Because of the work we have done together in the past five years, our state has made crucial investments in our schools and colleges, in our highways and transit systems, in our healthcare system,” Inslee said.

He added: “Our economy is strong, our future is bright, but there are always new heights to reach, new challenges to overcome and persistent wrongs to right.”

Along with new K-12 spending, he touted the state’s paid family leave among bipartisan accomplishments.

In his speech, he proposed new legislation that included:

  • A new voting rights act that includes automatic voter registration and Election Day-registration;
  • Using nearly $1 billion in rainy day funds to cover new teacher salary allocations;
  • Further funding for the Career Connect Washington Initiative launched last year; and
  • New gun control laws banning bump stocks, background check expansions, and requiring safe gun storage.

But Inslee’s big push came for his carbon pricing plan, which would place a $20-a-ton tax on emissions generated by fuel and power plants starting July 1, 2019. The tax rate would increase 3.5 percent annually, plus inflation. The governor’s office estimates the tax will generate $3.3 billion over the next two biennia. The proposal has been introduced in the form of SB 6203; it has been assigned to the Energy, Environment & Technology Committee chaired by Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-36).

Evoking a 2008 state law calling on reduced carbon emission levels, Inslee said that “unless we act this year, that promise by the legislature will be broken. It is time to step up. While this session is short, our legacy on climate change must be long and must be lasting. We have just 59 days to do our part.”

Unsurprisingly, the move drew criticism from Republicans such as Assistant Minority Floor Leader Drew Stokesbary (R-31), who tweeted that it would have the state government “pick winners and losers.”

During a press conference after the speech, House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen (R-39) told the press that “when you run the numbers on it, you’re looking at a 19-20 cent per gallon gas tax. You’re looking at your heating and utility bills going up, your electrical bills going up; you’re looking at food prices going up, manufacturing prices going up, delivery prices going up. And so while I appreciate the effort…this is extremely tax-heavy and policy-short.”

He added that bipartisan, policy-driven efforts in the legislature to address carbon reduction are more likely to bear fruit.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler (R-9) was also critical of Inslee’s proposal. “This is about as predictable as any state of the state speech. You know going in that this governor will always call for new and higher taxes. He’s six for six, heckuva batting average. This is about new and higher taxes, it’s not about fixing the problem.”

Although Inslee called on the legislature to send him a 2017-19 capital budget to sign, Schoesler said it failed to address the Hirst decision, which has had enormous implications for rural land development. “The issue that was totally missing from today’s events…the one issue that the House has had 4-5 sessions now to deal with, and nothing.”

Republican State Treasurer Duane Davidson has also cautioned against using rainy day funds to pay for non-emergency spending. In a tweet, he wrote: “Now is the time to grow our reserves, not dip into them.”

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