A Step Forward for Environmental Accountability

April 2, 2014

A tax break for a natural gas plant in Tacoma offers a nice step forward for a bipartisan approach to environmental accountability and effectiveness.

One of the primary failures of Washington's environmental approach is that politicians choose policies that make them look good but do little to ensure those policies actually work. For example:

  • The legislature's own auditing agency confirms the state's "green" building standards don't create energy-efficient buildings. The rules, however, haven't been changed despite the high cost and, in many cases, negative results.
  • In 2005, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels launched a climate agreement for cities that promised to meet the 2012 Kyoto carbon targets. In Washington state, 33 cities signed the agreement but none of them met the target and only a handful did anything beyond send a press release announcing they had signed the agreement.

These repeated failures are one reason we've called for improved accountability for Washington's environmental expenditures and regulation. In 2010 and 2011, we offered the "Climate Accountability Act," which would have required state projects actually meet promised environmental results. The introduction of the bill notes:

The legislature finds that in order to improve efficiency and the use of scarce resources, the state must receive the greatest return on the environmental investments it makes. Projects that do not return the expected environmental benefits waste not only the funds given to the project but also prevent funding from being available for projects that would have a positive environmental impact.

Now, a bill offering a tax break to Puget Sound Energy enshrines that approach, requiring PSE to meet environmental targets. In an article in the Olympian, the Governor notes "This is the first time a tax incentive will be tied to concrete carbon-emission reductions and includes other real accountability measures to make ensure taxpayers receive maximum return on their investment.”

The agreement to set those targets was bipartisan, bringing Republican Senator Curtis King and Democratic Representative Reuven Carlyle together to set the goals which include "reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by 300 million pounds per year and smaller reductions in emissions of particulates, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide."

This is a good start and there is no reason such an approach shouldn't be applied to regulation and state expenditures. Those who believe fighting climate change is a "moral imperative" should be the most supportive of this approach, demanding real results rather than symbolic gestures.

We at the Policy Center generally oppose targeted tax preferences, preferring a system that is flatter and fairer to all innovators and job creators – with or without lobbyists. The principle here, however, is that if taxpayers are going to give to one company a preferential tax rate or direct government spending, they should get what they pay for. We hope this principle is applied to all environmental projects.