Olympia transpo trade: Gas taxes for cap-and-trade?

Senate Republicans want Gov. Jay Inslee to give up a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gases.
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Senate Republicans want Gov. Jay Inslee to give up a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gases.

The rumblings are this: Legislative Republicans might be willing to go whole hog on raising gas taxes if Gov. Jay Inslee guts his push to deal with climate change.

Meanwhile, King and Snohomish counties appear on the way to get the authority to levy their own motor vehicle excise taxes to prop up their transit systems.

Washington State Wire reported Tuesday that the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus has put out a $12.3 billion transportation proposal, including an 11.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike. That would be noticeably bigger than the commonly cited Democrat target of $10 billion with a 10.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike. Washington's gas tax is currently 38 cents a gallon.

In return, the 23-Republican-two-Democrat alliance wants Inslee to stop pushing for a cap-and-trade law to regulate carbon emissions, and the coalition vaguely hints that other possible anti-greenhouse-gas measures might also become deal breakers, the news Web site reported.

Washington State Wire cited its source on the gas tax and appropriations issues as briefing papers that the majority coalition used in talking to business groups about its proposal. So far, the majority coalition has not unveiled this proposal to the public. 

On Tuesday, Crosscut could not reach either sides' lead negotiators for comment: Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way and Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. Both parties have been tight-lipped for months about details of the talks. The majority coalition has not yet told Inslee's office about its stance against a cap-and-trade program, according to the governor's spokesperson David Postman. The governor's office, said Postman, will decline comment on the matter until it hears from the coalition.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have agreed to grant King and Snohomish counties the legal ability to levy their own fees as a way to raise revenue, according to copies of some majority coalition briefing sheets provided to Crosscut. Snohomish and King county governments, with a good deal of public support, have been fighting for that authority for almost a year. King County needs that authority to levy fees to avoid a projected 17 percent cut in Metro transit service in 2014.

The same majority coalition briefing sheets show two significant unresolved budget-shifting issues. The majority coalition wants to get rid of the sales-and-use tax on transportation construction materials, which would reduce money to the state's general fund. The majority coalition also wants to shift the funding of stormwater-runoff projects from gas-tax revenue to a state Ecology Department-related hazardous substances tax. Since the coalition lists these items as "unresolved," the Democrats apparently oppose those measures.

On climate matters, the majority coalition's cap-and-trade-removal plank is a recent one.

Republicans and Democrats have been negotiating transportation issues for at least six months. In late September — less than two months ago — the consulting firm for the governor's bipartisan climate change panel told the committee that some combination of a cap-and-trade program, a carbon tax and pushing low-carbon fuel was the only way to realistically meet the goals of a 2008 law to trim carbon emissions.

Three weeks ago, Inslee said he would push for a cap-and-trade program.

In 2008, Washington's Legislature set a goal of reducing the state's greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, with further trimming of emissions to 25 percent below Washington's 1990 level by 2035 and to 50 percent below by 2050. Last spring, the Legislature set up the panel — two Republicans, two Democrats, plus Inslee as a fifth non-voting member — to map out how to comply with the 2008 law's targets.

The climate change panel's technical consultant, the Leido firm of Virginia, concluded that the most potent policy would be to install a cap-and-trade program in which Washington would have an overall annual limit to its carbon dioxide emissions. Limits would be set for specific geographic areas. Firms would obtain rights for specific amounts of emissions in those areas and could trade their rights. A carbon tax is simply a levy on a firm's carbon dioxide emissions, which is supposed to inspire a business to decrease its emissions. Since transportation emissions account for 44 percent of Washington's carbon dioxide output, requiring lower carbon levels in fuel mixes would help. 

So far, the climate change panelists have agreed only to do more research on non-controversial measures, which would tackle a small fraction of the problem. The panel's two Republicans want more study of the proposals’ economic effects before agreeing to any action. Three of the four legislators must agree on any formal recommendations that the panel sends to the Legislature.

The timing of the colliding transportation and climate issues is now getting tricky.

Milestones for the climate change panel include a Nov. 21 meeting to map out its recommendations, a Dec. 6 public hearing on those recommendations, and a deadline of Dec.31 to finish writing its recommendations to the Legislature.

Meanwhile, with the Legislature is in Olympia on Nov. 21-22 for a series of committee meetings there is talk about using that time for the full Legislature to have another special session to vote on a transportation revenue package — if an agreement is reached. After this month, the Legislature's next real chance to tackle the transportation package would occur at its 60-day 2014 session, which begins Jan. 13.

Another complicating factor is that the state's normally tax-averse business community has overwhelmingly favored passage of a transportation package funded by a gas tax increase. The business community wants the resulting jobs and dollars circulating through the economy. But Washington State Wire reported Tuesday that the Association of Washington Business, which supports a gas tax hike, also opposes a cap-and-trade program. The Washington Truckers Association, which also supports a gas tax hike, told the Legislature last week that it will withdraw that support if the greenhouse gas fix-it proposals are put into effect, the Web site reported.

The Senate majority coalition held 10 public hearings in September and October around Washington on what the transportation package should look like. The public, local governments, labor interests and local business communities wanted construction and maintenance projects to kick in as soon as possible. Only token opposition to a gas tax hike surfaced. A cap-and-trade program, carbon emissions taxes and low-carbon fuel were not even presented at the hearings.

Meanwhile, Inslee's climate panel held two public hearings recently in Spokane and Seattle. Crowds at both overwhelmingly wanted the state to tackle climate change problems, although the support was not focused on specific proposals. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8