Why climate policy is stalled in Olympia

There has been a lot of talk over the last couple years about carbon taxation due to the work that I did along with friends of mine at Carbon Washington for Initiative 732, the first and most progressive carbon tax proposal in American history. We based it off of the highly successful carbon tax which British Columbia passed in 2008, and refunded the money back to tax payers because we have the most regressive tax code in the United States. The number of exemptions in our bill were limited.

Then there was the Governor’s bill in the legislature in 2017. I lobbied for it, even though it had several big problems. The carbon tax amount was significantly smaller than 732, it increased linearly, not exponentially, and gave many exemptions to big oil and coal which 732 didn’t. I lobbied for it regardless of these serious flaws because it was better than nothing and would have funded our schools which are significantly, which desperately needs to happen.

The third proposal so far was I-1631 which was extremely similar to Inslee’s bill. It was a modest tax, with a 1 year delay before implementation, would have increased linearly, had a long list of exemptions for oil companies, and even worse was fairly vague about where the money would be spent compared to the other two bills, leaving over a billion dollars for the governor to make the final decision on, through a board the governor would have appointed.

732 (2011-2016)

All three have failed. When it comes to the major players in the state, there are four which are relevant.

The first is Carbon Washington. We started the discussion in the first place, and designed everything to benefit working class families, who are disproportionately people of color. The Audubon Society joined us in fighting for the initiative, along with many local Democratic Parties, multiple environmental groups, and a wide swath of scientists and business leaders.

Despite all of this, the number one complaint I heard the most often was not having to do with the context of our bill itself but was regarding a group known as the Alliance. They were formed in opposition to us, claiming that we needed to take people of color into account, despite how we won that demographic come election day, and they would benefit more than anyone else from the working families tax credit and sales tax reduction, among several other unrealistic criticisms. They were claiming to be building a new, better initiative which would take people of color into account and would release the initiative “soon”. I will get back to that bucket of corruption.

The other main players were the governor, who opposed us probably to pursue his own political agenda and propose a bill of his own come election day, and the Democratic Party outright opposed us.

The Alliance, Governor Inslee, and the Democratic Party allied themselves with big coal in 2016. There is no other honest way to put it.

Our failure at the ballot box, aided by Governor Inslee, the Alliance, and the Democratic Party (all of whom should have helped us) has made it significantly harder to get anything done since then because we have to fight the argument that the people already voted no once, and why try again? They hurt themselves in the process, as I will outline further down.

The arguments of the Alliance are preserved at Ballotpedia.

Sidenote: All of the claims from OneAmerica and the Democratic Party that the tax is not in fact “revenue neutral” is based off the estimates published by the Office of Financial Management. They estimated a shortfall of $797 million over a 6 year time period, which would be an average of $132 million per year. However, they didn’t include their standard deviation in the document they sent to every voter in the state, and their standard deviation was larger than their mean, meaning that it was as close to revenue neutral as anyone could predict with the best models (which they were using). Printing a future projection without a standard deviation is unprofessional, and misled every voter. For reference, the 2018 proposed budget had a total amount spend of $44,669 million for one year of spending. If, let’s say, the OFM was correct and there would have been a shortfall (more on that in the next paragraph) the total impact would have been 0.3% of the budget. About 1/3 of the total amount spent on Natural Resources & Recreation, the smallest section of the budget. To claim (as they did) that it would create austerity is ludicrous, and if there was a slight shortfall, wouldn’t have made the sky fall.

The opposition to 732 ran with this misprint the OFM printed, falsely claiming that 732 would threaten our schools, which was completely false.

The Legislature (2017)

After the failure of 732, the battle moved to the legislature. This bill, as I describe above was significantly weaker. It gave large exemptions to big oil, and probably would not have reduced emissions at all. The only reason to lobby for it, in retrospect, is that we might have been able to do more in the following election year and the money would have funded our schools. It wasn’t a great bill.

Unfortunately, even with a Democratic Majority this bill which started with an injured leg from its big oil exemptions failed in the legislature, losing Governor Inslee major political brownie points, and making it harder to pass future bills.

The Alliance finally decided to announce their proposal after Governor Inslee fell flat on his face, once they were essentially the only player left in town.

Initiative 1631 (2018)

The Alliance finally released their initiative, and it had many of the same flaws of Governor Inslee’s proposal. Particularly the major exemptions to big oil which I detest. It was better than the legislation in that it was a larger tax (though still significantly smaller than 732) but it wasn’t as clear as the bill on how the money would be spent.

Both of those features made this bill significantly harder to defend for me. I am not surprised it failed because of those major problems with the bill.

The truth is, it was poorly written, gave exemptions to the wrong groups, and didn’t outline clearly how the money would be spent. This made it really hard to  defend because if someone brought any of them up, the only response I could honestly say (because I try very hard to be honest) that yes, it gave exemptions to the wrong groups and you probably would not see any benefit to this legislation.

On top of this, I don’t even know if it would have increased carbon emissions at all given its complexity.

I voted for it, but I didn’t lobby for it because I knew it would probably fail.

Remember the arguments from the fight against 732? How we would have bankrupted the state (we wouldn’t have) and how we didn’t listen to minorities (we did, there is a lot of history on this issue on how they walked out)? Well, if by bankrupt the state they meant  that the investments would NOT go to our schools (one of their arguments) and would NEVER be seen by working class families, instead being distributed by an unelected board with no oversight from the legislature, with fairly vague goals, which probably would not have helped working class people or global warming. The only winners from 1631 would have been oil companies with their massive exemptions.

It would not have funded our schools, rebuilt our infrastructure,

The Future

I still hold out naive hope that Washington might still be able to pass significant climate legislation. Many strong climate leaders were elected last week, and we might be able to get something done now.

Nothing is going to happen at the ballot box anymore. The Alliance basically made sure of that in 2016, and I do not see a future for that organization with their track record at this point.

Getting something through the legislature of any scale is going to be extremely difficult. Telling legislators to vote for something similar to two failed initiatives is not a good place to stand, even if people vote against similar legislation once it makes it very difficult to get something through. I don’t want carbon taxes to be DOA, but the reality is they probably will be. I hope I am wrong on this.

The only groups which truly deserve credit in my opinion for making any progress at this point are Carbon Washington, Audubon and Citizens Climate Lobby.

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