Carbon tax proposal inches through Legislature

Governor’s pitch to tax carbon makes it to the Senate floor, but time is running out.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee passed an amended version of Governor Jay Inslee’s proposal to tax carbon emissions on Feb. 22.

The legislation, SB 6203, would levy a $12 tax per metric ton of carbon emissions starting in July 2019, and would rise by $1.80 annually starting in July 2021 until the tax rate reaches $30 per ton, at which point it would be capped. Numerous businesses deemed to be sensitive to the tax would be exempted.

Revenue from the tax would be invested in renewable-energy infrastructure, rural economic development, wildfire prevention, and assistance for low-income families impacted by the increased energy and gasoline costs that would likely result from the new law.

The bill now goes to the Senate Rules Committee, which will decide if and when it will get a floor vote.

In December, Gov. Inslee proposed taxing carbon to lower emission levels in the state while allowing for greater investment in more environmentally-friendly energy infrastructure. He originally wanted a $20 per ton tax rate with annual increases for inflation.

The proposal still has a long way to go before it can get to the governor’s desk to be signed into law. The legislative session ends in two weeks, and even if it passes through the Senate, the bill must then go through the House of Representatives.

Throughout the session, Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate have been noncommittal on getting a carbon tax passed this year. And Republicans in both chambers have been adamantly opposed to a carbon tax from the start.

“I think this energy tax is an ill-founded, poor decision,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R–Ritzville, prior to the bill’s passage out of committee on Feb. 22. He criticized the bill’s exemptions, saying that middle and lower-class taxpayers will “eat” the majority of the tax burden. “It’s unconscionable to tax the working taxpayers in this way.”

Sen. Randi Becker, R–Eatonville, said at the committee meeting that many of her constituents drive to work in King County, and that they will be negatively impacted by the tax. “We might as well go back to the horse and buggy, because that’s what they’re going to be able to afford to do and it will absolutely wipe out the people of the 2nd Legislative District,” Becker said.

Several Senate Democrats who voted for the bill criticized it as being a regressive tax. Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D–Beacon Hill, said that his vote to move the bill out of committee was not a signal that he will “support the regressive nature of this particular proposal when it gets to the floor.” Sen. Steve Conway, D–Tacoma, concurred.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D–Seattle, said his bill is a “modest investment” that will achieve “meaningful carbon reduction.”

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D–Orcas Island, called it a “powerful piece of legislation.”

“I see this as a very modest approach, maybe too modest,” Ranker said.

Environmental groups threaten to field a ballot initiative later this year if lawmakers fail to pass a carbon tax. In 2016 a carbon-tax ballot initiative was voted down by almost 20 points.

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

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