NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Why I decline to sign I‑732

As I was walk­ing into my neigh­bor­hood Fred Mey­er store here in Seat­tle a few weeks ago, I encoun­tered a young woman with a clip­board. She asked me if I want­ed to sign the peti­tion for Ini­tia­tive 732, spon­sored by Car­bon Wash­ing­ton.

I refused.

It’s not that I’m opposed to rais­ing rev­enue by putting a price on pol­lu­tion and car­bon emis­sions. Far from it. In 2010 I helped defeat a bal­lot ini­tia­tive backed by the oil com­pa­nies that would have repealed Cal­i­for­ni­a’s land­mark law to com­bat glob­al warm­ing, includ­ing the state’s pio­neer­ing cap-and-trade system.

I’ve worked to sup­port var­i­ous clean ener­gy projects both as an activist and as a staffer for an elect­ed offi­cial as well.

That expe­ri­ence, com­bined with the flaws of I‑732, sug­gests to me that a rev­enue-neu­tral car­bon tax is the wrong way to solve the cli­mate crisis.

Here are some of the rea­sons why I won’t sign I‑732.

It’s rev­enue-neu­tral

One of the sup­posed sell­ing points for I‑732 is that it is rev­enue-neu­tral, mean­ing that it won’t bring in any mon­ey for the State of Washington.

Sup­pos­ed­ly, this approach will be appeal­ing to con­ser­v­a­tives, because the new tax won’t result in any addi­tion­al fund­ing for pub­lic services.

Why any pro­gres­sive or envi­ron­men­tal­ist would think this is some­how a good thing is beyond me. Our state bad­ly needs more rev­enue to fund the essen­tials of a 21st cen­tu­ry soci­ety. We need more mon­ey for schools, human ser­vices, and for sus­tain­able infra­struc­ture. Rev­enue neu­tral­i­ty is one of the last things this state needs. Why on earth would we pass up an oppor­tu­ni­ty to invest in our future?

As we’ll see below, rev­enue neu­tral­i­ty is also not very con­vinc­ing to con­ser­v­a­tives. But regard­less of how the elec­torate per­ceives a rev­enue-neu­tral pro­pos­al, such an idea is not going to help us pro­duce the reduc­tions in car­bon diox­ide we need.

You often hear that “we have to put a price on car­bon diox­ide” if we’re going to cut emis­sions. That’s a nec­es­sary step, but it’s not suf­fi­cient. Our car­bon diox­ide emis­sions aren’t the prod­uct of a free mar­ket. They’re the prod­uct of sev­en­ty years of fail­ure to invest in renew­able ener­gy infrastructure.

Sim­ply mak­ing it more expen­sive to pol­lute will not, in and of itself, mag­i­cal­ly lead to build­ing infra­struc­ture we need to allow peo­ple to live more sustainably.

Don’t take my word for it. A recent arti­cle in Nature points out that any sys­tem to price pol­lu­tion on its own isn’t suf­fi­cient to cut emis­sions of car­bon diox­ide, methane, and oth­er pol­lut­ing gas­es. We need more renew­able ener­gy, and that is going to require sub­si­dies and oth­er steps to pro­mote the con­struc­tion of new renew­able ener­gy projects. Cal­i­for­ni­a’s cap-and-trade sys­tem is pro­vid­ing that fund­ing. I‑732 won’t, because it’s revenue-neutral.

Cal­i­for­ni­a’s cap-and-trade sys­tem is gen­er­at­ing at least $2 bil­lion a year that is being plowed into sus­tain­able infra­struc­ture projects, from solar pan­els to high speed rail. British Columbi­a’s rev­enue-neu­tral car­bon tax, how­ev­er, pro­vides no such funds.

The Van­cou­ver B.C. metro area was recent­ly forced to ask vot­ers to raise local tax­es to pro­vide a bad­ly need­ed expan­sion of the region’s rail net­work. That mea­sure failed, and it’s unclear where the mon­ey will come from to pay for a tran­sit expan­sion that is essen­tial to pro­vid­ing major, long-term pol­lu­tion reduc­tions. Even­tu­al­ly, B.C. will have picked all the low-hang­ing fruit of car­bon emis­sion reduc­tions. They’ll need sig­nif­i­cant new infra­struc­ture to go fur­ther, but there’s no way to pay for it.

Rev­enue neu­tral­i­ty is unjust

The basic con­cept behind I‑732 is that if you raise the costs of pol­lut­ing high enough, the mar­ket will some­how mag­i­cal­ly decide to start build­ing alter­na­tives to infra­struc­ture that relies on burn­ing car­bon. The prob­lem with this approach should be obvi­ous: what hap­pens to peo­ple in the mean­time? What if the mar­ket takes its sweet time to build the green infra­struc­ture we need? As much as we want to see a price on pol­lu­tion, that price should also be eco­nom­i­cal­ly just.

I‑732’s details also sug­gest that low-income Wash­ing­to­ni­ans and peo­ple of col­or will be left out of the process and exclud­ed from most of the ben­e­fits. That’s the argu­ment that Tony Lee and Car­oli­na Gutier­rez made ear­li­er this sum­mer in call­ing for a more equi­table pol­i­cy than I‑732:

As a “rev­enue neu­tral” pro­pos­al, Ini­tia­tive 732 (which is col­lect­ing sig­na­tures) aims to dis­turb the sta­tus quo as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. It redi­rects most of the rev­enue gen­er­at­ed by its car­bon tax as rebates to rich and poor alike, with­out invest­ing in pol­lu­tion reduc­tion nor com­mu­ni­ty benefit…

True cli­mate jus­tice looks like tran­sit serv­ing afford­able hous­ing, clean ener­gy in low-income neigh­bor­hoods, healthy food sys­tems and good local­ly root­ed jobs. It takes an equi­table pol­i­cy, and at a time of great need, that means invest­ments tar­get­ed for com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and peo­ple of low­er incomes.

Cli­mate advo­cates and move­ments fight­ing for jus­tice are aligned, but our proven solu­tions are being held hostage to the fos­sil fuel indus­try. Achiev­ing equi­table pol­i­cy requires mobi­liz­ing those most impact­ed by cli­mate change.

Tony and Car­oli­na are absolute­ly right. Pro­gres­sives should lis­ten to these voic­es, rather than chase con­ser­v­a­tive vot­ers who aren’t like­ly to vote for I‑732 anyway.

Con­ser­v­a­tives won’t sup­port it

Despite the many prob­lems of rev­enue neu­tral­i­ty, back­ers of I‑732 claim that their car­bon tax has to be rev­enue neu­tral to earn sup­port from con­ser­v­a­tive vot­ers.

This is a bad­ly mis­guid­ed view of how right-wing vot­ers think and act. Con­ser­v­a­tives aren’t just opposed to spend­ing mon­ey to pro­vide essen­tial pub­lic ser­vices. They’re also opposed to rais­ing addi­tion­al rev­enue, peri­od. They vehe­ment­ly oppose any new tax, or any increase of an exist­ing tax, for any rea­son. They won’t care that I‑732 low­ers oth­er tax­es, because they believe those oth­er tax­es should be cut any­way, and not as part of some polit­i­cal deal ben­e­fit­ing liberals.

David Roberts at Vox recent­ly explained why dreams of a bipar­ti­san coali­tion for a car­bon tax are wrong:

I see this kind of polit­i­cal naiveté among car­bon tax sup­port­ers quite a bit. A rev­enue-neu­tral tax is “polit­i­cal­ly moot” only if you envi­sion pol­i­tics as a kind of ide­o­log­i­cal grid, with cer­tain sweet spots where all of both sides’ cri­te­ria are met. It makes sense that every politi­cian “should” sup­port any pol­i­cy in those sweet spots.

It ignores the fact that the GOP is not a pol­i­cy check­list but a high­ly acti­vat­ed, ide­o­log­i­cal demo­graph­ic that views Democ­rats as engaged in a project to fun­da­men­tal­ly reshape Amer­i­ca along Euro­pean social­ist lines. A coali­tion that will trust Demo­c­ra­t­ic promis­es of rev­enue neu­tral­i­ty about as far as it can throw them. A coali­tion of which vir­tu­al­ly every mem­ber has signed a pledge nev­er to sup­port any new tax, ever. (Ezra Klein once asked Grover Norquist about a rev­enue-neu­tral car­bon tax, actu­al­ly. Norquist warned that “a Repub­li­can Par­ty which cre­ates a new tax would not be long for the world.”)

And it’s a coali­tion that draws sub­stan­tial sup­port from com­pa­nies involved in fos­sil fuels and sub­ur­ban sprawl — though, side note: Big oil is less like­ly to oppose a car­bon tax than big coal.

We’ll come back to that final point in a moment.

But the larg­er point is cru­cial: con­ser­v­a­tives are unlike­ly to vote for any kind of sys­tem to price car­bon or oth­er forms of pol­lu­tion. So why design that sys­tem around the desires of peo­ple who will nev­er sup­port it in the first place?

Keep in mind that British Columbi­a’s con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment, which touts the province’s car­bon tax, has not allowed it to keep up with infla­tion. (As a con­se­quence, B.C.‘s emis­sions have been going up, not down, as the B.C. Sier­ra Club has point­ed out.) Nei­ther has the Unit­ed King­dom’s con­ser­v­a­tive government.

And one of the very first things that Aus­trali­a’s cur­rent con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment did upon win­ning pow­er in 2013 was repeal that coun­try’s pol­lu­tion tax.

I‑732 began as a con­ser­v­a­tive idea

The lack of right-wing sup­port for a car­bon tax is par­tic­u­lar­ly iron­ic giv­en that I‑732 was first dreamt up by the Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter, a right-wing think tank that has received fund­ing from the State Pol­i­cy Net­work, itself fund­ed by the Koch broth­ers.

In May of 2008, Todd Myers of the Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter made the case for a car­bon tax. In doing so, he explic­it­ly attacked the idea of using gov­ern­ment to cut pol­lu­tion and car­bon emis­sions, and pro­posed a car­bon tax in order to under­mine government:

The [cap-and-trade] plan relies on forc­ing fam­i­lies to make sig­nif­i­cant lifestyle changes and sub­si­dizes tech­nolo­gies that many are already ques­tion­ing… The prob­lem with such an approach is that it relies on the sup­posed abil­i­ty of gov­ern­ment offi­cials to make wise deci­sions about a num­ber of indus­tries, keep up with the rapid pace of eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, under­stand the com­plex exchanges that occur in the econ­o­my, and antic­i­pate the unin­tend­ed con­se­quences of the deci­sions of mil­lions of peo­ple in Washington.

This is some deeply right-wing stuff: attack­ing green tech­nol­o­gy, claim­ing that efforts to reduce car­bon diox­ide emis­sions are “forc­ing lifestyle changes,” and claim­ing that gov­ern­ment can­not mean­ing­ful­ly help solve the issue — even though Cal­i­for­ni­a’s cap-and-trade sys­tem is work­ing very well.

Although the Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter has not endorsed I‑732, Todd Myers is on Car­bon Wash­ing­ton’s advi­so­ry board (in fair­ness, so are some very pro­gres­sive peo­ple). I‑732 still reflects the Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter’s basic approach as laid out in 2008: cre­ate a car­bon tax, cut sales tax­es, and keep gov­ern­ment out of the process in part by deny­ing our state the rev­enue it needs to build sus­tain­able, car­bon-free infra­struc­ture. There’s no rea­son why pro­gres­sives should sup­port a pro­pos­al cham­pi­oned by con­ser­v­a­tives, espe­cial­ly one this flawed.

I‑732 is doomed if it ever gets to the ballot

Giv­en all of the above, it should be no sur­prise that polls indi­cate that just 39% of vot­ers sup­port I‑732 when read the bal­lot title.

If I‑732 makes it to the bal­lot, it’s going to go down in flames. That’s not going to help the cause of address­ing the cli­mate cri­sis. There’s a bet­ter way.

Cap-and-trade is a bet­ter alternative

A cap-and-trade sys­tem, like the one pro­posed by Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee or the one in oper­a­tion in Cal­i­for­nia, is a far bet­ter solu­tion. Cal­i­for­ni­a’s cap-and-trade sys­tem has been in oper­a­tion for near­ly five years. In that time it’s raised bil­lions of dol­lars that is help­ing the state pro­vide green infra­struc­ture that will help peo­ple, espe­cial­ly those with low incomes, afford to live a sus­tain­able lifestyle.

Here’s just some of the things that Cal­i­for­ni­a’s cap-and-trade sys­tem has funded:

  • High speed rail
  • Clean vehi­cle rebates
  • New trains and sta­tions for local rail lines
  • Weath­er­iza­tion for low-income homes
  • Rooftop solar pow­er for low-income homes
  • Elec­tric buses
  • Afford­able housing

It also has more pub­lic sup­port. 61% of Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers reject­ed the effort to repeal the state’s cap-and-trade ini­tia­tive. That came at the 2010 elec­tion, which was not near­ly as favor­able for pro­gres­sive caus­es as a pres­i­den­tial year will be.

Cap-and-trade is vehe­ment­ly opposed by the oil indus­try, which tried in vain to get fuels exempt­ed from the sys­tem in Cal­i­for­nia. They claimed that apply­ing cap-and-trade to fuels would cause gas prices to soar.

They were wrong — gas prices were bare­ly impacted.

The oil indus­try’s main con­cern is that cap-and-trade cre­ates new rev­enue that states can use to build infra­struc­ture that allows peo­ple to buy less oil. A car­bon tax does no such thing. Because it does­n’t pay for new infra­struc­ture, the oil indus­try sees it as less of a threat to their cus­tomer base.

Let’s sup­port cap-and-trade instead

The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Ener­gy (of which the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute is a mem­ber) is cur­rent­ly work­ing on the details of a cap-and-trade ini­tia­tive.

This sum­mer, they said they would:

… explore pos­si­ble cli­mate bal­lot mea­sures with the goal to file and qual­i­fy an ini­tia­tive to the peo­ple in 2016. Our pri­or­i­ty is to devel­op a pol­i­cy that is effec­tive, viable and rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the diverse breadth of our coalition.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, they’re mov­ing too slow­ly. While the Alliance debates the exact details of the pro­pos­al they plan to put on the bal­lot, Car­bon­WA has been busy build­ing a grass­roots move­ment to sup­port I‑732. The Alliance has­n’t done that kind of work yet, part­ly because they don’t have a spe­cif­ic pro­pos­al to orga­nize around.

They’ve brought togeth­er orga­ni­za­tion­al lead­ers, but that’s not the same as going out and recruit­ing rank and file activists and pro­gres­sives to join a move­ment to sup­port a spe­cif­ic pro­pos­al. Car­bon­WA is already doing that, earn­ing the loy­al­ty of peo­ple who should be sup­port­ing cap-and-trade instead but see I‑732 as the only pol­lu­tion pric­ing game in town.

By the time the Alliance final­ly decides what they want to put on the bal­lot, they may find it’s too late — the activist base may already have sided with I‑732.

Even if the Alliance is behind the curve, they still have a chance to gain pub­lic sup­port. It’s clear that I‑732 still isn’t win­ning over the elec­torate — even in Seat­tle. As I was walk­ing out of the store, I noticed that most oth­er cus­tomers weren’t stop­ping to sign the ini­tia­tive either. No won­der Car­bon­WA is now pay­ing sig­na­ture gath­er­ers to try and get onto the ballot.

We des­per­ate­ly need to do more in Wash­ing­ton State to reduce pol­lu­tion and car­bon emis­sions, par­tic­u­lar­ly by build­ing green infra­struc­ture. I‑732 won’t make that hap­pen. I declined to sign it, and I hope oth­ers will make the same choice.

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  1. Don’t let the per­fect be the ene­my of the good, I say. If rev­enue neu­tral­i­ty is the cost of get­ting a strong price on car­bon, you’re still win­ning. And fam­i­lies are going to need the tax cut to off­set the high­er cost of liv­ing cre­at­ed by the car­bon tax.

    Get cli­mate wins now rather than hold out for the “per­fect” solu­tion which might nev­er come.

    # by Robert :: September 8th, 2015 at 8:39 PM
  2. Renew­ables are good, but con­ser­va­tion is bet­ter. The North­west Pow­er and Con­ser­va­tion Coun­cil’s 5 year plan (Sev­enth Pow­er Plan) to meet most new demand by cost-effec­tive con­ser­va­tion. All new demand was met this way in the last plan. Renew­ables only show up at a lat­er date (about when planned coal plant retire­ments take place) because they are more expen­sive, espe­cial­ly in cap­i­tal costs, than conservation

    # by David Kerlick :: September 13th, 2015 at 3:29 PM
  3. Voltaire’s quote about per­fect being the ene­my of good (enough) is very use­ful in many situations…an obses­sive child, a OCD co- work­er, etc but one must be care­ful using it ad hoc in the pub­lic pol­i­cy are­na. There are count­less exam­ples of that sen­ti­ment being used to con­sid­er, even pass, worth­less leg­is­la­tion which not only does­n’t accom­plish the pri­ma­ry goal but, worse, gives the false sense that some­thing was done AND allows oppo­nents to appear to be doing some­thing while actu­al­ly doing noth­ing. And, the issue is then “off the table” for years to come because “its done”.

    # by Russ Lehman :: September 14th, 2015 at 5:44 PM
  4. Hard to know where to begin with such an inco­her­ent argument:

    1. I‑732 is bad, because con­ser­v­a­tives won’t sup­port it — but it’s real­ly bad because one of its prin­ci­pal local sup­port­ers is a promi­nent Wash­ing­ton conservative.…

    2. I‑732 is bad, and does­n’t do enough for social jus­tice because it would only pro­vide $200 mil­lion in low-income assis­tance through an annu­al rebate of up to $1,500 to 400,000 work­ing fam­i­lies, but Inslee’s cap-and trade pro­pos­al (which would have pro­vid­ed $143 mil­lion in low-income assis­tance and next to noth­ing in its sec­ond ver­sion) is good…

    3. Con­ser­v­a­tives will nev­er vote for any­thing involv­ing a tax hike, there­fore we should def­i­nite­ly have an ini­tia­tive that focus­es on rais­ing tax­es to fund social ser­vices and renew­ables, like the Gov­er­nor’s pro­pos­al to raise anoth­er $1.3 bil­lion in state rev­enue through cap and trade…

    I could go on, but I think the mem­bers and sup­port­ers of the Alliance who are busy crit­i­ciz­ing I‑732 how­ev­er they can ought to be wor­ry­ing more about the Alliance’s prob­lems, and what those prob­lems might have to do with the big tent coali­tion, big donor focused, email heavy, leg­is­la­ture and lob­by­ist ori­ent­ed work that the envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions in it have been spend­ing their time and ener­gy on.

    For sev­er­al years, Car­bon WA has been urg­ing this coali­tion to com­mit to run­ning a car­bon pric­ing ini­tia­tive of some kind or oth­er. If they had, I‑732’s sup­port­ers would be col­lect­ing sig­na­tures for them, or get­ting ready to. Instead, they’ve spent their time and ener­gy sup­port­ing a leg­isla­tive effort that’s gone nowhere, and which every­body well informed knew would go nowhere. They’ve done very poor­ly strate­gi­cal­ly about car­bon pric­ing, and the oil trains, and the low car­bon fuel stan­dard. They’ve failed to put for­ward any real­is­tic polit­i­cal alter­na­tive for reach­ing the admirable goals they’re pro­claim­ing. It’s too bad some of them are now work­ing to keep I‑732 from try­ing to suc­ceed through a dif­fer­ent, grass­roots, approach.

    # by Thad Curtz :: September 14th, 2015 at 9:31 PM
  5. Sor­ry you don’t yet have the per­fect tax pro­pos­al. Put on your think­ing cap and trade it for a cor­po­rate income tax. In the mean­time I am con­tin­u­ing to gath­er sig­na­tures for I732. Both What­com Coun­ty and 40th dis­trict Dems have endorsed it.We know how to stick it to oil and cut­ting the sales tax by a pen­ny will get votes across the polit­i­cal spectrum.

    # by Hue Beattie :: September 21st, 2015 at 4:52 PM

2 Pings

  1. […] cou­ple weeks ago, our Pres­i­dent, Robert Cruick­shank, wrote a lengthy blog post explain­ing why NPI can­not sup­port CarbonWA’s I‑732, a statewide ini­tia­tive spon­sored by econ­o­mist Yoram Bau­man that attempts to cre­ate a new tax on […]

  2. […] NPI strong­ly sup­ports the deci­sion to go to the statewide bal­lot in 2016. We’ve been call­ing for the Alliance to launch a 2016 ini­tia­tive for months, here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate and in oth­er forums. We’re very, very pleased that the Alliance is mov­ing for­ward, and we will be ful­ly sup­port­ing its efforts to devel­op a strong, robust ini­tia­tive that does not suf­fer from the fatal flaws of CarbonWA’s I‑732. […]

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