Washingtonians overwhelming rejected a proposed carbon tax via Initiative 1631 during Tuesday’s election – by a 56-44 percent margin.
Despite numerous failed efforts to enact a carbon price scheme twice by voter initiative, by Governor Jay Inslee through executive orders and by the state legislature during this year’s session, the issue may not yet be settled. The makeup of the legislature for the 2019 session could determine whether resurrected carbon tax bills or new proposals will receive the necessary support.
In a statement, NO on 1631 Spokesperson Dana Bieber called the outcome “a clear victory for working families, consumers, small businesses and family farmers across our state – as well as for our environment. Washington voters have soundly defeated this costly, unfair and ineffective energy tax.”
However, Washington Policy Center Environmental Director Todd Myers told Lens the wide defeat margin puts state lawmakers who favor a carbon tax bill in a bind.
“It’s a pretty clear indication that people don’t want a carbon tax, revenue neutral or not,” he said. “If it (loss margin) gets worse, then it really becomes a hard sell for freshman legislators to say ‘My district just voted this down, but I’m going to vote for it’.”
He added that if the legislature did manage to pass a carbon tax, it would trigger either a referendum or voter initiative. “Then they get to fight this all again next year. There may be legislators who vote for new renewable (energy) requirements and call it good. Whether they can get a majority for that and a new carbon tax, we’ll see. I think that’s a hard sell.”
If passed, the initiative would have imposed a $15 per ton tax on certain emitters and created an oversight board composed primarily of governor-appointees to manage how the revenue would be spent. The initiative was backed by the environmental community, but opposed by private labor unions, truckers, several public utility districts and the Association of Washington Business.
University of Washington Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Cliff Mass wrote in a blog post prior to the Tuesday vote that if the initiative failed, the “Yes on 1631/Alliance group will bear a very heavy responsibility,” including the “waste of nearly 50 million dollars for the two campaigns (I-1631 and I-732). If it fails, perhaps a message will finally be clearly delivered: only a rational, bipartisan approach has a chance of moving forward.”
It’s an approach Bieber says some members of No on I-1631 favor. “Many members of our coalition have worked and will continue with the legislature to address climate change. That was one of the reasons we needed to defeat I-1631,” because it would have “blocked the path to a meaningful environmental policy.”
Carbon Washington Executive Director Kyle Murphy wrote in a statement that “opponents argued a better proposal was needed. The opponents must now stand by their word in calling for a better proposal. We invite supporters and opponents of 1631 to join us in working on proposals that reduce carbon and promise a prosperous, healthy future.”
The idea for carbon pricing got a big push when in 2015 Inslee ordered the state Department of Ecology to create a carbon cap rule. However, the rule approved by Ecology was later struck down in court as unconstitutional. In 2016, a coalition proposed a revenue-neutral carbon tax via I-732, which was rejected by voters, 59-47 percent.
During the 2015 and 2017 session, Inslee proposed legislation creating a carbon tax, but it failed to clear the House chamber. In this year’s session, SB 6203 introduced at Inslee’s behest managed to clear key committees but failed to receive a vote by the Senate.
Aside from criticism of how the money would be managed and spent, the vote may have also reflected growing tax fatigue among Washingtonians who voted by a similar margin to ban local income taxes on certain foods and drinks via Initiative 1634. All but two counties, King and Jefferson, voted against it. In an advisory vote on SB 6269, Washingtonians voted to repeal the legislation, which levies a tax on oil and petroleum products received through a pipeline.
Washington Trucking Associations Executive Vice President Sheri Call described the vote outcome on I-1631 as a “moment of jubilation for sure for the trucking industry. In my mind, speaking of regressive taxes in the state of Washington, it’s a very regressive tax.”
Call says she expects new proposals to pop up during next year’s session. “That’s the work we’ll have cut out for us to try and inform legislators what we foresee happening: increased costs of shipping. It’s just going to get passed down along the line to consumer. Hopefully they’ll be sensitive to that. It impacts everything you buy.”
She added: “We’re on the cusp of a lot of innovation for power tools for the industry, so to speak. If we can allow that to play out and incentive the industry to look to alternatives, that’s a better scenario than being stuck with carbon tax that doesn’t nothing for us.”