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CounterIntel: OlyIntel

Democratic Limits

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Last year, fearing a backlash from the hefty corporate donors and lobbyists in Olympia, the Democratic leadership infamously flipped off the Democratic caucus by abandoning the popular Wal-Mart bill. The progressive bill would have forced large employers like Wal-Mart to pay into a health-care fund to make up for the money their army of uninsured workers was costing the state Medicaid program. When the leadership caved, it was an embarrassment for the Democrats.

Well, I can already tell you what this year's "Wal-Mart bill" is going to be. Shoreline Representative Maralyn Chase's (D-32) bill to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which is picking up early traction among the Democratic majority, will soon get kneecapped when, once again, corporate Washington puts the heat on the Democratic leadership to stall a good proposal. Indeed, environmental activists, who helped Chase steer an even tougher version of the Al Gore-ific bill through committee last week (it's set to be voted out of committee this week), are already fretting that industry is going to kill the proposal. The bill, which would set a hard limit on carbon dioxide emissions then divvy up the allowable emissions and make companies buy up credits to collectively hit that limit, is known as a cap and trade formula.

In addition to putting a ceiling on emissions (thank you) and putting money into state coffers (a plus), cap and trade formulas wisely induce corporations to go green through financial incentives: The credits that companies buy from the state for the right to pollute take on financial value because the companies buy and sell the credits from one another. So, companies that concentrate on reducing emissions can sell their increasingly valuable extra credits to companies that are maxing out on emissions.

It's not Chase—who boasted to me that she now rides a tricycle around the Olympia campus to fight global warming (true)—that I'm nervous about. She's a longtime environmentalist and speaks in orthodox environmentalist terms about saving "the commons" from polluters.

Rather, I'm worried about the Democratic leadership who stressed at a caucus meeting immediately after the elections last year that Democrats need to tread lightly if they want to keep their majority.

In addition to the annoying Catch-22 of that logic, a carbon dioxide cap isn't as controversial as an income tax or gay marriage—two Democratic proposals that, frankly, have little public traction. An emissions cap is exactly the sort of Zeitgeist item that a Democratic majority should move through the legislature. Unfortunately, the idea is unpopular with a more powerful contingent than the public: big business. I'm afraid that rather than being a victory for the Democrats, the emission limits will end up being another case study of Democratic limits.

The one person who could save the Democrats from another embarrassment is Governor Christine Gregoire. If—as Oregon's Governor Ted Kulongoski did last week–she announced a cap and trade plan, then big business wouldn't be able to shoot this down in the backrooms of Olympia. I called Gregoire's office to see if Gregoire had a statement on Kulongoski or Chase's emissions cap. She did not.

 

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