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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Carbon tax measure: Green initiative push has some Orange in it

Port commissioner’s successful bid echoes in campaign for I-1631

By Jake Thomas, Columbian political reporter
Published: October 31, 2018, 9:42pm
5 Photos
With Halloween just a day away, Heidi Cody, a supporter of Initiative 1631, wore a toothpaste costume while out promoting the climate change initiative.
With Halloween just a day away, Heidi Cody, a supporter of Initiative 1631, wore a toothpaste costume while out promoting the climate change initiative. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The last time Washington considered putting a price on carbon was a lonely time for Heidi Cody.

Cody, a Vancouver climate change activist, recalled how in 2016 she was almost always the only volunteer in the area collecting signatures for Initiative 732, a ballot initiative that would’ve made Washington the first state to levy a tax on carbon emissions but was voted down by 60 percent of voters (including by 65 percent in Clark County).

Two years later, as Washington voters are about to weigh in on Initiative 1631, another carbon-pricing ballot measure, Cody finds herself in better company. A week before the November election, Cody gathered with other volunteers in a Vancouver real estate office serving as the campaign’s regional headquarters as they prepared to knock on the doors of voters to make their case for the initiative.

“People weren’t having 732,” said Cody, who wore a toothpaste tube Halloween costume out canvassing. “1631 is much more mobilized in Southwest Washington. I don’t think you can pass climate change policy without the involvement of Southwest Washington. Seattle can’t carry it alone.”

Since I-732 lost, supporters of the new initiative have launched a more expansive organizing campaign. Locally, the campaign for the initiative has sought to tap into volunteers and energy left over from last year’s costly and politically charged Port of Vancouver commission race. The initiative has already drawn some enthusiasm from this corner of Washington. Local activist Don Steinke gathered 2,444 signatures for I-1631, more than anyone else in the state.

The campaign’s efforts could work. A recent poll found support among 50 percent of those surveyed.

The big differences between 2016’s I-732 and this year’s I-1631 are in how they’re designed and the political support they’re designed to attract. I-732 measure was meant to be revenue-neutral in hopes of attracting support from moderates and conservatives. It reduced existing taxes in exchange for a tax on carbon emissions. But many environmental and progressive political groups refused to back it because it didn’t invest new money into renewable energy projects.

This year, the initiative has the support of those groups and from the Alliance for Clean Jobs and Energy, a large coalition of organizations in Washington seeking action on climate change. I-1631 places a $15 per metric ton fee on carbon emissions beginning in 2020. The money generated from it would go to renewable energy projects.

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“This initiative has a much better shot because of the lack of a split in the environmental community,” said Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver.

He said that the initiative needs support outside of the Puget Sound area to pass. While he said that he doesn’t expect it to get much support in Eastern Washington, there could be enough supportive votes among Southwest Washington’s growing population for it to pass.

Meridian Green said that she voted for I-732 but was “a little ambivalent.” She said that in August of last year, she attended a presentation by the Alliance for Clean Jobs and Energy at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. She said that she was struck by the solution to climate change presented and how it had support from a broad coalition of businesses, as well as groups representing public health, faith and labor.

“That’s where I went from being a low-key participant to all in,” said Green, who is now a Vancouver-based field organizer for the campaign.

The fault lines for the initiative have fallen along those similar to last year’s Port of Vancouver Board of Commissioners election, which centered on a proposal to build the country’s largest oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver.

Kris Greene, who expressed varying degrees of support for the terminal, raised over $500,000 for his bid for port commissioner, the majority of it coming from companies with a direct interest in the project. Don Orange, who prevailed in the race, centered much of his campaign on opposition to the terminal and a desire to create clean energy jobs. Orange relied heavily on support from a political group associated with the Washington Conservation Voters.

The campaign opposing the I-1631 has been largely funded by the four companies that operate the state’s oil refineries, according to a report in The Seattle Times. The companies have given more than $25 million in opposition to the measure, the paper reported.

Dana Bieber, spokeswoman for the opposition campaign, said that her group has also held community and events designed to educate voters. She didn’t have numbers on how many events it’s held in Southwest Washington, but she said they’ve been focused on how the initiative, if passed, will raise prices and harm consumers.

Nick Abraham, communications director for Yes On I-1631 campaign, said that the campaign has 22 offices across the state, including Southwest Washington. He said that the campaign used networks created through Orange’s campaign. He said that the “yes” campaign’s strategy relies on volunteers making direct contact with voters to convince them to vote for the initiative.

“It definitely starts with folks that are trusted in the community, that live there that people know,” he said. “That opens up the door.”

Orange said that he strongly supports the initiative and has done some campaigning for it. He said that while the remnants of his campaign didn’t directly become part of I-1631, they have similar foundations and his race showed just how concerned people in Clark County are about the environment.

Mary Slowik Siciliano, retired college professor, is one of those people. She said she worked on Orange’s campaign before volunteering for I-163. She said it was easy to get involved.

“The structure was there,” she said. “We didn’t have to start from scratch.”

Columbian political reporter