Will Climate Initiative Hinge on Washington Signatures or a California Billionaire?

Dec 22, 2015

Having failed to even receive a vote on their carbon cap-and-trade bill during the legislative session, Seattle environmental groups are now trying to buy out a rival climate change initiative, I-732, the revenue-neutral carbon proposal they previously called racist. With the help of California billionaire Tom Steyer, they are promising to spend huge sums in next year's election to pass a version of a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system that raises taxes. They have promised I-732 organizers a seat at the table if they throw away the signatures they have collected in favor of an unnamed alternative.

There are several things to know about this move.

  • The environmental community has not released an alternative proposal. They only say their hypothetical initiative would increase taxes rather than being revenue-neutral like I-732. Despite saying climate change is the most important issue we face, they are making action on carbon reductions contingent on a tax increase.
  • Environmental activists argue an initiative with a tax increase would fare better at the polls than a revenue-neutral approach. Not according to history. The long history of tax increase efforts in Washington state show voters have repeatedly voted tax increases down. This is why those same activists oppose Tim Eyman's most recent initiative requiring voters to have a say on all tax increases.
  • Additionally, it is also worth remembering that the last time Tom Steyer spent money in Washington state, he lost every State Senate race he targeted.
  • A carbon policy built around a tax increase could actually increase worldwide CO2 emissions. Increasing taxes would cause additional energy-intensive companies like Alcoa to leave Washington state. Manufacturers, like REC Solar in Moses Lake, face strong competition from China and elsewhere. Facing higher costs and strong competition, some would move to other countries, emitting more CO2. Climate policy analysts have a term for this: "leakage." A policy that creates leakage is a lose-lose - it kills jobs and increases CO2.
  • Many Seattle environmental groups recently supported I-122 in Seattle which they claimed would "limit big money in elections." Now, those same groups are asking a California billionaire to use his money to encourage I-732 authors to throw away the signatures of 350,000 Washington residents who support that initiative. The commitment to getting money out of politics, apparently, doesn't apply to their causes.
  • To be sure, the success of I-732's signature gathering has caused scrambling on all sides. Some environmental activists attacked I-732, calling one of its authors a racist. Many in the business community also sat on the sidelines, assuming the initiative would never garner the signatures, also fearing that while the initiative is revenue-neutral in total, some businesses would be hit particularly hard. Ultimately, the decision about what ends up on the ballot may hinge on who moves most quickly and with certainty to propose an alternative.

A decision will be made by I-732's organizers next week.