Inslee brings out the big guns: John Kerry
Inslee brings out the big guns: John Kerry John Stang

A few days ago, Gov. Jay Inslee brought in former U.S. Secretary of State and advocate to fight worldwide climate change John Kerry to convince Democratic legislators to pass a $12-per-ton carbon emissions tax.

The question is, what is more important to a Democratic legislator sitting on the fence about a carbon tax—a pep talk from a visiting celebrity politician, or his or her own constituents fearing increases in their gasoline prices.

One of Inslee’s greatest passions is fighting climate change, and trimming Washington’s carbon emissions is the main weapon in his arsenal. Since 2013, a GOP majority in the Senate—which voted in 2015 to declare global warming is not necessarily manmade—has stopped him. Now, Inslee has a super-narrow Democratic majority in the Legislature—25-24 in the Senate and 50-48 in the House.

Last December, Inslee called for a $20-per-ton tax on carbon emissions with the first $1 billion raised to pay for some near-term school improvements ordered by the Washington Supreme Court. In January, Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle) introduced a bill to create the $20-per-ton carbon emissions tax with the money to go to climate change fix-it measures.

For political and economic reasons, school funding has disappeared from the push for a carbon tax. Consequently, there is no life-or-death budgetary reason to pass a carbon tax. So, the tax focuses solely on trimming carbon pollution and its ripple effects, while helping people dealing with global warming.

Figures have been crunched and re-crunched. Business and political groups have entered efforts to scrape up 50 votes in the House and 25 votes in the Senate. The original carbon tax dropped to $10 per ton and then increased to $12 per ton as the math kept getting tweaked.

“It gets us to 25 percent of the 1990 level by 2035,” Carlyle said. He contends any carbon tax proposal “has to use the market place (to encourage cutting emissions) and this program does that.”

Caryle’s $12-per-ton bill has 67 exemptions or tax breaks to numerous industries because they use lots of energy and will face out-of-state and foreign competitors who don’t have to factor a carbon tax into their costs. California, Oregon and Canada have some type of charge or tax on carbon emissions. New England’s states have a surcharge on carbon emissions in their utilities. Some of the proposed tax breaks in Carlyle’s bill would go to the oil refineries, steel and aluminum industries, pulp mills and many agriculture-related facilities.

Starting July 1, 2019, Carlyle’s bill would raise the carbon tax by $1.80-per-ton-per-year until it hits a maximum of $30 a ton in 2031.

The current bill will raise $637 million in 2019-2021 and $872 million in 2021-2023, according to Washington Department of Revenue’s calculations.

That money is supposed to go exclusively to carbon reduction and climate change-oriented measures.

These include supporting clean energy ventures, helping facilities trim their carbon emissions, helping agriculture deal with the ripple effect of the tax, boosting wetlands, dealing with forest fires, providing financial help to the poor to deal with their energy needs, improving water supplies, helping workers displaced by carbon-cutting measures, increasing electric transportation in rural areas, and boosting broadband services in rural areas.

“This is a nuanced bill compared to others,” Chris Roden of the Cowlitz County PUD told the Ways & Means Committee

Most scientists accept that carbon emissions contribute to global warming, which has ecological ripple effects.

Carbon emissions are linked to global warming, which influences how snow packs melt, which in turn affects how much water is available for farming. Carbon emissions are also a factor in the increasing acidity of the water along Washington's shores, including Puget Sound, which has begun killing baby oysters and harming other shellfish harvested in the Northwest. Also, global warming is blamed for the increase in Washington’s forest fires.

The controversy is largely over whether forcing smokestack industries to significantly trim emissions will chase lots of jobs and business profits from Washington. The affected industries argue this will happen. Republican legislators argue that this approach will increase gasoline prices. State officials predicted the original $20-per-ton plan would raise gasoline prices by 4 percent to 9 percent by 2020. Follow-up calculations on gas prices and a $12 tax have not been done yet.

At Thursday’s hearing, oil interests, farming, some gas interests, grocers and trucking firms opposed the bill because of effects on gasoline prices, and how that affects businesses with small profit margins. Utilities, some businesses, and environmental groups supported the tax.

The specter of a broadly-worded public ballot with no input from all sides has haunted the Legislature, providing a reason to tackle a carbon tax now instead of this November. “If there is to be a carbon tax, it should be done here at the legislative level, not at a ballot level … where nuances will be lost,” testified Charlie Brown, representing Cascade Natural Gas.

Democratic leaders acknowledged that not all of their caucus members support a carbon tax, although most do. A few Republican votes will be needed in both the House and Senate, said Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) and House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan (D-Covington).

Republican leaders hate a carbon tax, saying all of their caucus members will oppose it. Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Des Moines) will lead shepherding Carlyle’s bill through the House. He believes a few Republicans will support a carbon tax, but are staying quiet for now to avoid pressure from their GOP colleagues. The allocations from Carlyle’s bill will benefit rural Republican areas, he noted.

Carlyle’s bill appears not to be a top priority for House Speaker Frank Chopp, (D-Seattle). He could not be reached for comment in the past few days, but two sources privately said he has higher priorities than the carbon tax proposal, so he is not making a maximum effort on it.

Right now, Democratic leaders are not doing vote counts to see if Carlyle’s bill will pass through the Legislature. They said the bill’s language has been constantly changing, and potential votes will change due to whatever the latest modifications are.

Instead, Nelson is waiting to see what comes out of the Senate Ways & Means Committee before she starts counting votes. Fitzgibbon is waiting to see what comes out of the Senate before he does the same.

For now, the ball is in the court of Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island), chairwoman of the Ways & Means Committee. She does not plan to start counting votes until after tweaks are made to Carlyle’s bill and after digesting input from Thursday’s Ways & Means public hearing on it. She is not sure when these changes will be made and voted upon.

Rolfes said: “It’s not my intent to ram it through. It’s not my intent to stop it, but to let it play out.