Politics & Government

Election fallout leaves Gov. Inslee without a Senate friendly to his climate-change agenda

Gov. Jay Inslee says he wants to extend an expiring state tax break for buyers of electric cars. He’d also like to let electric cars use carpool lanes on state highways, add incentives for building owners to add electric charging stations, and also provide incentives for energy conservation and wider use of solar power.

The once-proclaimed “greenest governor” in the country is gearing up a climate-change agenda for the 2015 legislative session, and he has not given up hope of taking even bolder action — such as adopting a cap on greenhouse gas emissions or a tax on carbon emissions.

Tuesday’s election results likely put a chill on all that ambition. Senate Republicans won a partisan majority and have one extra vote from Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, who helped form their anti-tax bulwark the past two years. Republicans also shrank Democrats’ majority in the House, giving more leverage to the minority than it’s had in several years.

“If it’s going to be taxing the daylights out of working families and their jobs in exchange for very, very tiny, if any, climate advantage, it’s a difficult ask,” Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said with skepticism last week.

Inslee, ever the optimist, wasn’t letting that hard political reality quiet his ambition. The governor told reporters at the fifth annual Washington Energy Future Conference in SeaTac that some form of a carbon tax or pollution tariff could help the Legislature find revenue it needs to answer a state Supreme Court contempt order over school funding.

A carbon tax or cap-and-trade market that puts a price on carbon emissions also might offer lawmakers a new way to move ahead on fixing transportation problems and also to address climate change, he said.

“They ultimately are going to conclude that in order for us to fund the education of our children, it is going to take some additional revenues,” Inslee said. “In the end they may take a look at some things they may not have thought about, including a carbon pollution system that reduces carbon pollution and has polluters pay.”

Democratic Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon of Burien served on Inslee’s climate study group that included lawmakers of both parties in 2013, and he’s also hopeful that some steps on emissions reductions can be taken next year.

Fitzgibbon had a bill to extend the expiring tax break for electric car buyers and said he’s bringing it back. He doesn’t know the cost yet but would like to expand it to cover commercial vehicles, based upon what he’s heard from business owners interested in transforming their vehicle fleets. The transportation sector produces about 45 percent of the carbon emissions linked to climate change in Washington.

But to meet the requirements of state law, which aims to lower state emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, the state must change its policies, according to the findings of a Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup that Inslee chaired in 2013 but which ended in acrimony.

Details of what Inslee ultimately proposes this year won’t jell until after his task force on carbon emissions comes back with concrete recommendations Nov. 17.

Schoesler, a farmer accustomed to standing his ground, said he’s concerned that fuel prices could be pushed up by carbon taxes or a clean-fuel standard that Inslee also is considering.

In order to work, the clean fuel standard could require conversion of farm wastes to biofuels that give off fewer greenhouse gases when burned, and that would be mixed into traditional gasoline. Consultants hired by Inslee have calculated that it might push up fuel prices by 2 cents to 10 cents over 10 years, according to a draft report released last month.

“I think the citizens — if they are going to pay more — would rather have a new transportation package than have it go into the profits of these new fuel companies” that make the ethanol for blending, Schoesler said.

At the same time, Schoesler said there may be places for Republicans to agree with Inslee, Fitzgibbon and other Democrats. He suggested one might be a proposal from Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, to convert the state’s ferries from diesel to cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas.

“So there are solutions there that actually help the economy and help the environment that we can look at,” Schoesler said. “Curtis King wants a more affordable ferry system. I think we all want cleaner air, and the governor wants the carbon reduction. You can find these areas that are good for everyone and don’t hurt anyone’s jobs. We’ll look for those kinds of solutions.”

Fitzgibbon said the fuel change for ferries is one place where agreement may occur, explaining that it is something the ferry system has been looking at for some time.

“It would save the ferries operating costs in the long run. It’s promising,” he said. “It’s a pretty minor bite out of our emissions, but it’s a positive step forward, and we want to flesh that out — if there is an opportunity to lower our emit and save money.”

Fitzgibbon said a carbon emissions tax or cap-and-trade system also could “absolutely” be part of solving the school funding challenge, which could require at least $1.5 billion in new money to be invested into K-12 schools next year. Fitzgibbon sponsored a bill this year that would have made that linkage.

“I would much rather tax something we don’t want, which is pollution, than something we do want — which is business activity,” Fitzgibbon said.

Republican Rep. Shelly Short of Addy served with Fitzgibbon on the 2013 task force and said she’s concerned that the state doesn’t end up imposing costs and hardships on families still struggling to make ends meet in her rural Eastern Washington communities.

“I’ll be honest. I’m skeptical. But I’m definitely willing to look at what he puts forward,” Short said. “I want to make sure that in solving one problem we aren’t creating another problem.”

Kris Johnson, president of the Association of Washington Business, which opposes a state-only cap-and-trade law, said it is important to remember that Washington is already one of the lowest-emission states because of its plentiful hydro-electric power.

He cautioned that areas of the state outside the Puget Sound hub are economically “fragile” with many counties’ jobless rates higher than the national average, and he cautioned against legislative action that might slow business growth in a state that already has a high tax and regulatory burden on business.

Environmentalists are not surprised to hear resistance to change. Clifford Traisman, lobbyist for a coalition of groups including the Washington Environmental Council, said the election did not change much of the landscape or the problems facing lawmakers.

“A price on carbon will generate revenue. How the Legislature decides to spend those revenues will certainly be part of the debate,” Traisman said. “The key to this challenge is (that) we have greenhouse gas reduction targets in law, and we don’t have the mechanism to meet the law. So this debate is about that.”