Turbulence ahead for Inslee's climate plan

The proposal for a cap-and-trade program to limit climate change will face sharp debate, but the governor says legislators are asking good questions.
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Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon

The proposal for a cap-and-trade program to limit climate change will face sharp debate, but the governor says legislators are asking good questions.

Gov. Jay Inslee's carbon emissions cap-and-trade plan is now in play in the Legislature.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, introduced companion bills Friday, sending the governor's proposal into legislative battle. Republicans overwhelmingly oppose the concept. A massive fight could well stretch to the end of the 2015 legislative session on this issue, because its passage or failure could have major implications on the rest of the state's budget.

Inslee's plan calls for roughly 130 of Washington's biggest polluters to pay for permission to produce specific amounts of carbon emissions, which scientists have linked to global warming. If that system is installed, polluters would be allowed to trade or sell their pollution quotas to other businesses.

Fitzgibbon, sponsor of the House bill, said: "The 130 biggest greenhouse gas emitters in our state have avoided paying the costs of carbon pollution for years. These large corporations can afford to pay the public for the right to pollute our air. If we do not take immediate action to reduce the carbon emitted into our atmosphere, we are continuing to put our economy, the health of our kids and families and our environment at risk.”

Fitzgibbon's bill has 37 cosponsors, all Democrats, and would need 50 votes to pass the 98-member House. The Democrats have 51 House members. Ranker's bill has 20 cosponsors, all Democrats, in the 49-member Senate, where it must have at least 25 votes to pass. The minority Democrats have 23 senators in their caucus, so two to five members of the Republican-led Majority Coalition Caucus will apparently be needed for the climate change legislation to pass that chamber.

During a press conference Friday, the governor noted that his proposal is "a new idea to legislators." He added, "They are asking good and legitimate questions."

Inslee downplayed the Republican-dominated Senate's new rule requiring a two-thirds majority to pass a new tax. Inslee noted that a 25-senator majority could vote to repeal that two-thirds procedural requirement prior to a final floor vote.

Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane and one of the forces behind the two-thirds requirement, made the same interpretation last Monday. Baumgartner is a strong foe of Inslee's carbon emissions proposal.

Inslee's approach is predicted to raise $1 billion a year, with the governor wanting the money to be divided into several chunks, including $400 million a year going to transportation projects to replace potential gas tax hikes. The governor wants another $380 million annually to go to education, where the state's court-ordered improvements on student-teacher ratios would be the most likely target for the money. The remaining money would go to Washington businesses competing against out-of-state and foreign firms that don't face the same carbon-pollution restrictions and to provide tax credit checks to roughly 500,000 lower-income families.

Inslee hopes to reduce statewide carbon emissions to achieve limits that the Legislature set in a 2008 law. That measure set a goal of reducing the state's greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, with further trimming of emissions later. “This plan will put us back on track to meet our 2020 goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions in our state," Ranker said.

In December, Inslee said his carbon emissions plan would eliminate the need for gas tax hikes of up 10 to 12 cents per gallon that various legislators from both parties have proposed in long-running discussions about a roughly $12 billion package for transportation construction, operations and maintenance. When the Republican-dominated Senate installed the two-thirds majority procedural rule on new taxes, it deliberately kept existing taxes out of that requirement. That means the current gas tax can be increased with a simple majority for transportation projects -- signaling the GOP prefers a gas tax hike to a carbon emissions tax to pay for transportation improvements.

Earlier this week, Republican Senate and House leaders overwhelmingly slammed Inslee's proposal, which is been in the works in public for months. They contend such charges would discourage new industries from moving to Washington and would increase expenses for other businesses — specifically citing Washington's many food processing plants — which might opt to move elsewhere. The loss of these plants would affect the facilities' subcontractors, such as trucking firms, plus neighboring small businesses dependent on the spending by the employees of the main plants, they said.

They also said the University of Washington and Washington State University would inevitably end up on the list of 130 polluters, contending such a move would be detrimental to the state.

The bills now go to the environmental committees in the House and Senate, where its fate will be vigorously debated – likely for months to come.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.


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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