OLYMPIA — Labor, environmental and social justice groups are picking up the campaign to tax carbon emissions in Washington.
The coalition, operating under the banner Clean Air Clean Energy Washington, filed an initiative March 2, the same day the Senate formally shelved a carbon tax bill. The proponents will have until July 6 to gather at least 259,622 signatures to qualify their proposal for a statewide vote.
For the first time, a carbon tax advanced through the Senate environmental and budget committees. But as in previous sessions, the policy failed to have majority support in either the Senate or House.
As promised, activists were ready with their own proposal to put a $15 per metric ton fee on the carbon content of fuels. The tax would increase by $2 a year plus inflation annually, with no cap unless the state gets on course to meet ambitious carbon-reduction goals.
Based on previous proposals, the tax could be expected to raise gasoline prices by 15 cents a gallon at first.
Washington State Labor Council is one of the main proponents of the initiative. Its president, Jeff Johnson, said Wednesday in an interview that higher fuel costs will be less economically damaging than climate change. “The cost of doing nothing is greater to the average citizen,” he said.
Initiative sponsors are not making any claims about the initiative’s potential impact on the climate as a stand-alone measure. “We see this as setting an example, even if your a state with relatively clean energy,” Johnson said.
The initiative would exempt diesel, biodiesel and aviation fuel used in food production, a standard feature of carbon tax proposals. The Washington Farm Bureau, however, argues a carbon tax would raise other costs for producers and has opposed all carbon tax proposals.
Washington voters rejected a carbon tax in 2016. Many climate-change activists opposed that measure because it would have cut other taxes to offset the affect a carbon tax would have on energy costs and consumer goods,
The idea was to cut greenhouse gases without pinching pocketbooks or growing government. For some environmental groups, this was a fatal flaw.
The new initiative does not have tax cuts. If the measure qualifies for the ballot, the Office of Financial Management will estimate tax collections. The initiative’s sponsor say it will raise more than $1 billion a year.
The taxes would be deposited into a “clean up pollution fund.” The money would be further distributed into accounts for “clean air and clean energy investments,” “clean water and healthy forests” and “health communities.”
Spending would be overseen by a 15-member board made up of government agencies, one tribal member and a representative of “vulnerable populations in pollution and health action areas.” Three “investment panels” would recommend how the money would be spent. The initiative dictates the make up of each panel. The one for clean water and healthy forests would be co-chaired by a tribal leader and “one stakeholder that represents statewide environmental interest.”
Todd Myers, environmental policy analyst for the conservative Washington Policy Center, said the initiative fails to hold the board accountable for actually reducing carbon emissions.
“The oversight board has so much latitude, they could spend it all on social justice with only tangential connections to carbon reductions,” Myers said.
“There’s no requirement to spend the money effectively,” he said. “It just becomes a guaranteed tax increase.”
Johnson said the goal would be to reduce emissions so that the fee doesn’t go up forever. Spending plans would be subject to public hearings, and after two years, state lawmakers could amend the initiative, he said.
“The Legislature would be kind of the arbitrator of how this is working,” he said.