Washington carbon tax initiative: Where there’s smoke there’s ire

Nov 1, 2018, 8:02 AM | Updated: 11:58 am
Initiative 1631...
(AP)
(AP)

It’s not just voters in Washington state who are focused on the state ballot measure that seeks to tax sources of greenhouse gases such as fossil fuels; groups for and against so-called carbon taxes across the country are paying close attention to Initiative 1631.

The reason? Should Initiative 1631 pass as the first-of-its-kind tax in the U.S., it would set the template for other such carbon-limiting measures across the country, political consultants say. And while in many states, such a tax would never survive the initiative process in other states — Texas, for example — Washington’s ballot measure would provide both legal grounding and momentum.

Already, a similar measure is being discussed in California, a state that already has carbon “cap-and-trade” regulations. As Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a proponent of the initiative, told the New York Times, ““We are not afraid of being a vanguard.”

Initiative 1631

Initiative 1631 seeks to tax greenhouse gas emissions from both utilities and vehicles by charging $15 per metric ton of carbon emissions starting in two years. That amount would increase $2 every year year subsequently.

For vehicles, this would add a per-gallon tax, potentially 14-cents a gallon starting in 2020. Utilities that use fossil fuels, such as natural gas, to generate power, also would be taxed. Independent analyses estimate the initial per-household costs ranging between $100 to $305 annually.

The tax is expected to generate an estimated $1 billion over its first three years. It is aimed at accomplishing two things: Raise money for a state, “clean up pollution fund” and encourage the use of alternatives that would not fall under the tax such as electric cars, wind, and solar energy.

Calling Initiative 1631 a job killer and an unfair burden on the working poor, the opposition — much of it funded by the oil industry — has poured more than $30 million into defeating the measure. The proponents, who received a $1 million donation from Bill Gates and nearly another $1 million from the Nature Conservancy alone, have raised more than $15 million. Collectively, it is record spending for a Washington ballot measure.

Too close to call

Consultants on both sides call the fight too close to call. A Crosscut-Elway Poll put the measure at just the 50 percent support needed for passage. According to an October poll,  it found that, “50 percent approval among the 400 registered voters polled. Thirty-six percent said that they were against the initiative, while 14 percent were undecided. The poll has a margin of error of 5 points.”

Most importantly, the poll found significantly more support nearing the election for Initiative 1631 than did a similar poll for 2016’s carbon tax measure, Initiative 732 which failed at the ballot box.

Inslee has campaigned for the tax calling a vote for Initiative 1631 a vote against President Donald Trump. On Tuesday, the New York Times editorial board endorsed the ballot measure, calling it a sensible way to charge polluters for polluting. It also noted that its success could benefit Inslee as well:

If the proposal, Initiative 1631, wins — as we hope it does — the result could ripple beyond Washington’s boundaries. No state can match California’s impressively broad suite of clean-energy programs, but the initiative, if successful, could catapult Jay Inslee, Washington’s governor, into the climate leadership role long occupied by the outgoing California governor, Jerry Brown.

RELATED: I-1631 is about the economy, not just carbon
RELATED: A climatologist’s argument against I-1631

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Washington carbon tax initiative: Where there’s smoke there’s ire