I-732 group submits signatures; critics say measure fails to do enough

Frank Turner of Olympia holds up a sign in support of Initiative 732, a carbon tax that will go before the state legislature starting in January. (Photo by John Stang)
Frank Turner of Olympia holds up a sign in support of Initiative 732, a carbon tax that will go before the state legislature starting in January. (Photo by John Stang)

The disagreement over the approach to an anti-pollution initiative escalated this week as backers of Initiative 732 turned in 362,000 signatures to the Secretary of State’s office on Wednesday.

Carbon Washington, the group behind I-732, submitted the signatures despite criticism of its “revenue-neutral” proposal, and now a coalition of groups that say the proposal doesn’t do enough to help communities of color, which some argue suffer the most from air pollution.

I-732 proposes the following:

  • levy a $25-per-metric-ton tax on all carbon emissions, projected to raise $1.7 billion annually,
  • cut the state sales tax from 6.5 percent to 5.5 percent,
  • trim a business-and-occupation tax for manufacturers,
  • and set up a $1,500 a year rebate for poor families.

The initiative’s next step is the state legislature in January. If it doesn’t pass there, the initiative will head to voters in November.

Carbon Washington argues that the cuts and and rebates in sales tax will roughly equal the amount raised each year by the tax on carbon emissions.

“It is a proven approach with success in British Columbia,” said Yoram Bauman, a co-founder of Carbon Washington. “What can be done in one state is to set an example for the nation and for the world.”

However, a number of social justice and environmental groups argue that I-732 does not raise enough revenue and fails to go far enough in a plan to clean up communities of color affected by air pollution.

They are short on reinvesting in communities of color. We look at the climate movement as creating a new economy,” said Dionne Foster, a policy analyst for Puget Sound Sage.

Many of Washington’s smokestack industries are located in poorer areas, which have disproportionately large populations of people of color.

In response to the I-732 critics, Bauman contends that the proposed sales tax decrease and $1,500-per-family rebate would help people of color.

Got Green and other groups that have expressed concern over Carbon Washington’s proposal held a press conference this week, saying that it met with the I-732 backers to urge more collaboration on the measure, but the talks were not successful.

Carbon Washington’s committee earlier this month considered not moving forward with submitting the signatures because of the progressive criticism of I-732, but it decided to move forward last week with I-732 after meeting with organizations promoting an alternative that would have included more revenue.

The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy has not yet unveiled its proposal — including specifics on what should be done for communities of color — but the alliance plans to bring its initiative straight to the voters in November. The Alliance has a deadline of July to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Revenue neutral?

The proposal first heads to the state Legislature in the upcoming session, where a proposal would need bi-partisan support to pass.

Carbon Washington has picked a “revenue-neutral” approach in which the new tax revenue is canceled by the new tax cuts and rebates. A statewide poll in late 2014 found that 53 percent of the respondents would support a carbon tax if it is offset by some tax decreases elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Alliance of Jobs and Clean Energy wants to raise net revenue through carbon fees instead of aiming at zero, and it advocates spending the new dollars on “accelerating the transition to a clean energy economy and addressing the impacts of carbon pollution on our air, land and people.” The alliance has not said yet how much revenue its proposal will seek.

A “revenue-neutral” approach would be more palatable to Republican state senators in the Washington Legislature than an approach with the aim of raising revenue, and Republican support will be needed for any proposal to pass through the Legislature.

Another question is whether the proposal really is revenue-neutral. A recent Washington Department of Revenue analysis said while Carbon Washington’s plan would raise more than $100 million in revenue than the total eliminated by tax cuts and rebates in the 2018 fiscal year, it eventually will lose money for the state. The nonpartisan group’s report predicts net losses of between $200 million to more than $250 million each in fiscal years 2019, 2020 and 2021 — creating a net loss of $675 million over the four years.

Puget Sound Sage’s Foster cited the Washington Department of Revenue’s report as a reason to reject the revenue-neutral approach and a reason to support approaches that raise state funds. Carbon Washington’s Bauman says the report is wrong and the state miscalculated tax income from electric utilities.

Since Carbon Washingon chose to send I-732 first through the Legislature, Thursday was the deadline to submit its signatures. The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy has until July to submit its signatures because it plans to go directly to voters.

Inslee plan to come

Complicating the picture is that Gov. Jay Inslee will unveil his latest anti-carbon-emissions plan next week.

For two years, Inslee has tried to put a charge on carbon emissions to encourage smokestack industries  to trim their pollution. A GOP-dominated Senate — with several of its Republicans among the highest campaign donation recipients from the oil industry  — has blocked Inslee’s plans so far.

So in July, Inslee announced that he would install a carbon cap on 31 major polluters instead of pursuing a carbon charge — launching a Department of Ecology’s move to regulate carbon emissions through the executive branch. Critics say the move stretches the limits of executive power. Inslee insists that he has the authority under the Washington Clean Air Act and under a 2008 law that set a goal of reducing the state’s greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. GOP legislators are pondering how to stop Inslee’s latest move.

When the Department of Ecology’s draft plan is unveiled next week, that will kick off a few months of public feedback sessions. Inslee hopes to install carbon emissions regulations as soon as this coming summer.

It’s unknown how the governor’s plan would intersect with either plan from Carbon Washington or the one from Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy.

Editor’s note: due to an editor’s error, this story has been corrected, and information added. A coalition of groups organized by Got Green met with Carbon Washington for to seek more collaboration this week, but was unsuccessful. That effort was separate from the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy’s efforts. 

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