Eastside state legislators talk carbon fees, housing and cars at UW Bothell

Eastside lawmakers met on April 26 for a debrief with constituent businesses.

State legislators met with business owners and industry leaders to discuss economic policies and how to take on pressing regional problems ranging from the housing crunch to carbon emissions.

The meeting happened on April 26 at the University of Washington Bothell where 16 state legislators from every Eastside district met with the East King County Chamber of Commerce. The questions quickly turned to meat and potato issues including the proposed carbon fee initiative, Initiative 1631. Supporters are gathering signatures to qualify it for a place on November’s ballot, but many legislators anticipate it will both make the ballot and be approved by voters.

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said I-1631 will likely be on the ballot. Another carbon pricing initiative, I-732, failed in recent years after failing to gather support from labor and business groups, and a bill proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee died in the Legislature during the 2018 session. However, Frockt said if the state fails to act, state voters will likely approve an initiative.

“This state is going to take a step forward on climate change,” Frockt said.

I-1631 would levy a $15-per-ton fee on carbon emissions from large carbon emitters beginning in 2020, which would rise by $2-per-ton each year, adjusted for inflation. This would raise the price of a gallon of gasoline by roughly 15 cents initially and the increases would continue until at least 2035 when it would hit $55 per ton, adjusted for inflation. If the state was meeting greenhouse targets of reducing emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels the tax could freeze, but Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, is worried about a lack of a hard pricing cap in the initiative. Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, expressed concerns over a lack of certain exemptions for energy-intensive industries, like cement manufacturing, which could drive up housing costs.

Frockt said if I-1631 passes it will likely be adjusted by the Legislature in the following session. Rep. Vandanna Slatter, D-Bellevue, said the initiative has more momentum than past efforts as a wide coalition of supports ranging from environmental and social justice groups to labor and businesses are supporting it. Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, said he believes the initiative will be approved in November.

The housing shortage Puget Sound residents are experiencing and problems with growth were discussed at the forum. The housing crunch has hit low-income residents, empty-nesters and first-time homebuyers particularly hard. Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said the price of land is high right now making it hard to develop affordable housing, with many working families being forced further from job centers in Seattle and the Eastside.

“We have to start looking at more innovative approaches to this,” Kuderer said.

Sen. Tana Senn, D-Mercer Island, introduced HB 2831 during the 2018 legislative session in an effort to encourage developers to build more condominiums. Condos have historically been a lower-cost option for homebuyers, but Puget Sound hasn’t seen many constructed since the passage of a 1989 act, which allowed condo associations to sue developers more easily, the Puget Sound Business Journal reports. Senn’s bill would have required at least half of condo owners in a development to approve a lawsuit before an association could sue developers. Senn plans to reintroduce the legislation in 2019.

Many legislators agreed that a lack of supply was at the root of the problem but different ideas were proposed on how to fix it. Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympa, who represents areas of Pierce County, said the state should re-examine the growth management act (GMA), which is a state document enacted in the 1990s that mandates growth should be concentrated in urban areas to minimize urban sprawl. Barkis said the Legislature should allow more development in rural areas as well as examining the urban growth area boundaries.

Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, said problems additionally stem from some cities being unwilling to upzone urban centers to accommodate more dense growth. With greater upzoning, developers can building more higher and include more housing units which could lower housing prices.

“How do we build higher, more efficiently,” McBride said.

On the future of self-driving vehicles in the region, many legislators said the state should begin looking at regulations. The state has a task force to study how to implement self-driving vehicles and Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said Olympia should design rules for the entire state instead of relying on individual cities to enact their own. Hobbs said they are being proactive in finding solutions.

“It’s a good thing our state is leaning forward,” he said.

Self-driving vehicles and van-pools could help reduce congestion, which Palumbo said employers have expressed concerns about as they try and move their workers through the region. Finally, despite challenges facing Puget Sound, legislators were optimistic about the future of the Eastside.

“We are an economic engine for the entire state,” said McBride. “… By working together we have a huge amount of strength.”

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