Politics & Government

Inslee’s carbon tax gets little love from state lawmakers

The state Legislative Building in Olympia. Both houses have proposed budgets, but neither includes a carbon tax.
The state Legislative Building in Olympia. Both houses have proposed budgets, but neither includes a carbon tax. Staff file

While state House Democratic leaders proposed a smorgasbord of taxes to pay for their $44.7 billion budget plan released Monday, one was notably missing: a tax on carbon emissions championed by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.

A carbon tax was the centerpiece of the governor’s budget proposal and a one-two punch in Inslee’s eyes. Not only does Inslee say it would combat climate change, a major priority of the governor’s, but it also would raise $2.1 billion in the next two years to help make court-ordered changes to the public school system and fund construction projects.

But a new tax on carbon polluters was nowhere to be found in the budgets of Republicans who control the Senate nor Democrats who hold a majority in the House.

“We don’t have anything to bring forward at this point,” said state Rep. Kris Lytton, a Democrat from Anacortes who chairs the House Finance Committee.

The budget plan from House Democrats instead relies mainly on a new tax on capital gains and a tax hike for some high-earning businesses, which Lytton said were popular with her fellow Democrats in the House.

Republicans pay for their budget with a new statewide property tax, which would replace local school district levies that are now used unconstitutionally to pay a portion of teacher and school administrator salaries.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville recently told media the chances of an Inslee-style carbon tax passing the Senate were “slim and none.” Many Republicans have said a carbon tax will hurt business, and Schoesler criticized Inslee’s tax as “unproven” in a statement issued after the governor’s budget was proposed in December.

Lawmakers also rejected a cap-and-trade carbon tax idea of Inslee’s in 2015. His more recent proposal would impose a tax of $25 for each metric ton of carbon emissions.

Still, Democrats maintain some form of carbon tax could become part of the state’s final two-year budget. State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon of Burien told reporters Monday he’s still working on a carbon tax that would largely pay for clean energy, water quality, habitat and forest health projects.

And Democratic leaders have been claiming for weeks that a carbon tax is not universally disliked by Republicans in the GOP-led Senate. Senate Republican Floor Leader Joe Fain of Auburn and GOP Sen. Mark Miloscia of Federal Way endorsed last year’s carbon tax Initiative 732 that aimed to balance business concerns by swapping taxes, rather than raising them.

Voters rejected the ballot measure by more than 18 percentage points.

“We know that the governor and many people in our caucus and actually across the aisle are very interested in having a carbon discussion, so I think those will continue,” Lytton said.

Fitzgibbon also mentioned the likelihood of another initiative on the topic, saying it might push Republicans to a legislative compromise to avoid a ballot measure they have no input on.

But Fitzgibbon’s tax — even if tweaked to pay for schools — would likely have to be different from Inslee’s to muster support in the Senate.

Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said while the governor does want the Legislature to take more action on climate change, his first priority is negotiating a compromise to pay for the state Supreme Court’s McCleary education ruling.

Legislators must have a plan in place to fix the overreliance on local levies by the time they adjourn this year.

The state is “already taking significant action against climate change,” Smith added, pointing to the state’s “Clean Air Rule,” finalized last year, that limits greenhouse gas emissions.

“If the House and Senate reach agreement on other options that do the job of fully funding education this year, that would be a great step forward for Washington school kids,” she said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein