In Our View: Examine Carbon Tax

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When it comes to legislating complex issues, the best option is not always the most practical. Take Initiative 732, which is now in front of the Legislature. Ideally, lawmakers would devise their own alternative; realistically, however, they would be best advised to pass the measure along to voters in November.

I-732 is an innovative and creative approach to cutting carbon emissions throughout the state — and yet it is flawed. On the positive side, it brings to the forefront an essential discussion and takes aim on an area on which many citizens should agree. While most scientists who have studied the subject believe that the emission of greenhouse gasses is contributing to climate change, such a belief should not be a prerequisite for a desire to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Reducing carbon emissions will have myriad benefits for the environment and for the health of the populace — in addition to combating human-caused climate change.

Initiative 732, supported by grass-roots group Carbon WA and designed to be revenue-neutral, would reduce carbon emissions by creating a statewide carbon tax of $25 per metric ton of fossil fuel emissions; electricity created from hydro, wind, or solar sources would not be taxed. For household consumers, the carbon tax would raise the price of gas by about 25 cents a gallon, and taxes on electricity and natural gas would be increased. For emission-producing industries such as steel mills or food-processing plants, the cost would be much larger.

Overall, those costs would be offset by tax reductions elsewhere. The state sales tax would drop from 6.5 percent to 5.5 percent; the state business tax would be essentially eliminated; and tax rebates would be provided for the working poor, who some critics say would be inequitably impacted by the carbon tax.

The idea is to leave state revenue at current levels while providing incentives for a reduction in carbon emissions, but this is where I-732 falls short. Looking at the four-year impact of the measure, the Office of Financial Management estimates that state revenues would be reduced by $914 million. Carbon WA leaders dispute that finding, but Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, chair of the House Environment Committee, said: “I think there’s agreement that I-732 isn’t workable because of how much it would reduce state revenues. We have to trust the experts.”

I-732 was sent to the Legislature in late January, when the secretary of state’s office certified that a petition drive had garnered enough signatures. That doesn’t leave lawmakers much time to decide on a course of action: Approve the measure as is; send I-732 to voters as is; or offer an alternative plan and place it on the ballot alongside I-732. Given the fact that this year’s session is scheduled for 60 days and that many other pressing issues are on the docket, sending the measure to voters would appear to be the most likely scenario.

Regardless of the outcome, I-732 is worthy of consideration. While critics reflexively claim that taxing carbon emissions would harm the economy and prove costly to businesses, a similar tax instituted in 2008 in British Columbia has met with mostly positive reviews. The question, therefore, is how damaging I-732 would be to revenue and the overall stability of the state.

There are many reasons to support a reduction in carbon emissions, and lawmakers would be wise to examine and tweak the plan. Unfortunately, that might not be practical during a short legislative session.