For opponents of a carbon tax, an initiative threat looms

If legislators don’t act on the governor’s legislation, a plan could land on the November ballot.

This is the sixth year Gov. Jay Inslee will try to convince lawmakers that the best means of fighting climate change is by making it more expensive to pollute.

And he seemed to be telling them Jan. 10 that this session may be their last chance to deal with the constructs of a carbon pricing scheme on their terms.

That’s because absent action by the legislators in the next two months, an initiative written by others is almost certain to be in front of voters this fall.

The Democratic governor didn’t say it so bluntly in his State of the State address. But his describing of the political landscape made it pretty clear those forces which separately view a carbon tax as a preferred weapon in this environmental battle are coming together.

“Support for enacting a price on carbon is growing,” Inslee said. “Members of the business, tribal, environmental and labor communities from across our state are coming to the table to talk about carbon pricing.”

It’s no coincidence those four “communities” are well-represented in the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy which is seeking to hire an experienced political operative to manage a statewide campaign.

“The successful candidate will work to build the components of a viable ballot measure, lead a signature gathering effort and run a successful campaign for the November 2018 ballot,” reads the online job posting.

The first phase — building the foundation and infrastructure — is under way. Signature-gathering could get started next month and, presuming a measure is qualified for the ballot, the final phase would be the campaign, according to the website.

Thus, while alliance members are at “the table” with the governor — and publicly cheered the carbon tax proposal he released Jan. 10 — they are not counting on his proselytizing talents to convert enough legislators to pass a pricing plan in line with their desires.

The threat of an initiative could give the governor leverage in his conversations with legislators.

It seems likely a ballot measure will be less friendly to businesses than his proposal — which is a $20 per metric ton of carbon emissions plus exemptions for agricultural, aerospace and utilities. And it won’t spend the money in quite the same way, either.

On the other hand, concession may be required of Inslee to get something passed.

For example, he may be asked to revisit lowering the tax rate paid by manufacturing businesses to the same level paid by the Boeing Co.

House Democrats and Senate Republicans included this tax break in last year’s budget agreement that averted a government shutdown. But Inslee vetoed it.

“It was grossly unfair to taxpayers,” he said then. “It was done in the middle of the night, it has zero accountability, there’s not a single job that they can prove will be produced from this and, as a result, I exercised my constitutional duty.”

At the time, the Department of Revenue estimated it would save companies about $64 million in tax payments through mid-2021. About 20 percent of the tax cut would benefit oil refineries which didn’t sit well with Inslee.

By comparison, in 2016, Boeing saved roughly $100 million as a result of the lower rate and it shed 6,344 jobs. And under Inslee’s carbon pricing proposal, the aerospace giant won’t be taxed on its aircraft emissions.

So if this is lawmakers’ last chance to influence carbon pricing, don’t be surprised if they want to link it with other subjects.

And if Inslee wants to achieve success this session, he’ll need to be open to those ideas.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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