Gov. Inslee stops pushing carbon fee. Potential presidential candidate Inslee should keep the faith

Gov. Jay Inslee made a bold opening bid in 2019-20 state budget negotiations last week. More than a few eyes popped when they saw his proposal for $10 billion in new spending, a capital-gains tax on high earners and a business-and occupation tax hike on service professionals.

If Inslee is guilty of shooting the moon, then legislators will bring him back to earth. That’s what happened two years ago when he proposed a similar increase in state spending — around 20 percent — for the biennium now ending.

Inslee’s budget plan should be seen for what it is: an exposition and defense of values he’s championed consistently, passionately and eloquently throughout his two terms, from strong education to fair taxation to sustainable clean air and water.

Naturally, Washingtonians also view everything he does through the lens of the ultimate moonshot: chasing the Democratic presidential nomination. Inslee told our Editorial Board Friday that he’s weighing his options for 2020.

The way Inslee has burnished his credentials as an environmentalist and climate change fighter, it’s not hard to imagine him carrying the mantle of a latter-day Al Gore. Whether he’s on the road touring the wildfire zone of Paradise, California, or at home proposing $1.1 billion in state spending to save the orcas, Inslee fits the narrative.

But one thing that jumps out from his new budget blueprint is an item that’s not in it for the first time since his first term: a fee on carbon pollution.

Instead, he unveiled a package of other green proposals, including a low-carbon fuel standard, building code upgrades, more investments in electric-vehicle infrastructure and a 100-percent-clean energy grid by 2045.

“These are things we can get through the Legislature this year,” he said in the Editorial Board interview.

Spoken like a man who hasn’t gained traction for carbon pricing in Olympia — even in 2018, when Democrats controlled both chambers — and who watched voters reject a carbon-fee initiative on the November ballot.

Spoken like a politician who knows there’s a time to shoot the moon and a time to be grounded in reality.

Taking a break from promoting a statewide carbon fee is a reasonable decision. We believe it’s Congress’ turn to have a crack at it.

Last month a half dozen U.S. House Democrats and Republicans signed on as co-sponsors of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 7173). At the very least, it’s a good conversation starter.

The bill would cut the world’s disastrously accelerating rate of greenhouse gas emissions by imposing a fee on U.S. oil, gas and coal producers. Initially it would be set at $15 per ton of carbon dioxide — the same as what Washington Initiative 1631 would have done. Costs would be borne by energy consumers, but money would return to them in a monthly rebate.

Structurally, this approach has less in common with the ill-fated I-1631 than with Initiative 732 on the Washington ballot in 2016. That measure failed, too, but the public is generally more receptive to revenue-neutral carbon pricing. An August survey by Yale University asked respondents whether they’d support “taxing fossil fuel companies while equally reducing other taxes.” Nationally, 68 percent said yes.

For his part, Inslee told us a fee-and-dividend model “has intellectual merit … but you would have to set it at a level that affects people’s behavior.” He’s also pessimistic about a federal climate-change breakthrough under the current administration. “We can’t just wait for Donald Trump to figure out science. That could take a long, long time — and we don’t have time.”

While we share the governor’s urgency, we support bipartisan efforts, wherever they can be found, to wean the U.S. from carbon dependency and create thousands of clean-energy jobs.

Washington members of Congress should join the dialogue on H.R. 7173. And Inslee just might ignite a fledgling national presidential campaign by exploring the possibilities. After all, every moonshot needs rocket fuel.