Washington’s Initiative 732, which aims to raise taxes as a way to drive down fossil-fuel consumption, has divided progressive voters and groups that often have common aims. The divide is over the issue of equity and what climate justice should look like.
Nationally and globally, people are pushing for taxing carbon polluters. It’s the law in a few Canadian provinces, and in a new report, climate scientist James Hansen recently wrote in Common Dreams that taxing fossil fuels is a way to save younger generations.
But what happens when big greenhouse gas emitters, oil refineries and coal plants are forced to pay money for pollution? How would that affect families who are forced to rely on gasoline and other fossil fuels because there are no available affordable alternatives?
Whether I-732 answers these questions sufficiently is where progressive voters in Washington have disagreed with each other.
I-732, which is backed by campaigners Carbon Washington, as well as Washington Audubon, Interfaith Works and others, would tax coal, oil and natural gas at $25 a metric ton of carbon dioxide. Eventually the carbon tax would grow to more than $100 a metric ton.
At the gas pump this would equal an increase of about fifteen cents a gallon, a cost which the ballot measure would offset by a cut of one percent in the state’s sales tax. Revenue from the tax would also fund the state’s Working Family Tax Rebate for the first time, which would allow families who earn 200 percent or less than federal poverty level to be eligible for up to $1,500 a year in tax relief. A family of three that earns $35,000 or less would be eligible for the rebate.
However, the proposal is under fire from a number of organizations for climate justice, who say the initiative will place the burden of these taxes on those who are already the most affected by climate change. Environmental and racial equity groups including Got Green, OneAmerica and others formed the Alliance for Jobs and Green Energy opposing the initiative. The state Democratic Party also opposes it.
The local executive committee and national office of the Sierra Club opted not to support the issue, citing a commitment to inclusion and equity, but the refusal to back the initiative has caused conflict within the organization.
Jill Mangaliman, executive director of Got Green, a grassroots group that works to fight poverty and climate change, is adamantly opposed to the initiative. Mangaliman told the Globalist that passing down the costs of a carbon tax to communities of color and low-income communities “is not acceptable.”
“We know these communities are already marginalized by income inequality, racism and gender inequality,” Mangaliman says. “They’re also impacted, in many cases, by health consequences associated with living next to polluted sites or in close proximity to highways, arterial choke points, or rail tracks carrying volatile oil.”
Mangaliman says the tax is just as unfair as the state’s tax system which relies on sales and real property taxes — a system that has the biggest effect on people with smallest paychecks.
“Who disproportionately pays for state revenue?” they said. “It’s low income people.”
Under the initiative, there’s nothing to stop a polluter from passing down the cost to consumers who already bear a heavy burden, Mangaliman says. A hike in gas prices will impact poor people the most because many already are forced by housing prices to live outside city limits, where public transportation can be sparse.
But Jason Puracal, a former Carbon Washington staff member and now volunteer, argues that cutting a full percentage point off the state sales tax and funding the Working Family Tax Rebate is “the biggest anti-poverty measure in the state since groceries were made sales tax exempt in 1977.” The rebate would benefit up to 460,000 low-income Washington families, supporters say.
That was a point that Puracal, who is a person of color, and two other writers of color, Priya Cloutier and Aaron Tam, emphasized in a recent op-ed in Crosscut in favor of the tax.
The three wrote the op-ed to counter the idea that the initiative is universally opposed by communities of color, immigrants and low-income families, Puracal says. He says the region and state have a long way to go to address equity issues, including affordable housing and education, pay equity, racism and inadequate transportation, but the carbon tax is an important first step.
Without the changes brought on by I-732, big polluters can continue to spew carbon dioxide, smog and asthma producing particles, into the environment for free, he says.
“We’re coming close to a deadline of this tipping point, right? When is the next viable time we’ll be able to pass legislation to move things forward,” he asks. “2018? 2020?”
The Alliance for Jobs and Green Energy criticizes the initiative for not generating enough money to address equity issues such as affordable housing and increasing clean energy jobs, especially for people of color and youth communities.
The alliance in April announced an alternative proposal that would tax polluters and at the same time add new money to state coffers to help people adjust to the changes and invests the money in green industries, but this proposal will not be on ballots this year.
Puracal says Gov. Jay Inslee’s similar approach “failed miserably” last year. Inslee’s proposal even failed with Washington House Democrats, Puracal notes. Meanwhile other approaches to address climate change such as cap-and-trade have been discussed, he adds, but there are so many stakeholders at the table “that they all want a piece of the pie and can’t agree on how the pie gets split up equitably.”
OneAmerica spokesperson, Ellicott Dandy says the initiative gets climate action and equity wrong. She calls 732 an incomplete policy written to appeal to a conservative establishment by shifting taxes.
While she agrees the initiative campaign has proven that voters are ready to consider a carbon tax, “it would be unwise to spend that political capital on something as short-sighted and regressive as I-732.”
Meanwhile, at a recent rally for I-732, organizer Ben Silesky urged supporters forward. He says the biggest challenge isn’t convincing people that climate change is real or swaying polluters opposed to taxing carbon. The challenge is how much time there is left to act.
“When you talk to a young person about this, they’ve been growing up with this as a storm cloud over their future. They don’t need to be convinced this is a serious issue. They just need to be convinced that this is a solution that’s up to the scale of the problem,” he said.