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Washingtonians rejected I-1631, but that doesn’t mean they oppose a price on pollution

Initiative 1631 is going down to defeat in the November 2018 general election, which is certainly a setback for Washington’s efforts to clean up our air and water, but its demise doesn’t mean that Washingtonians oppose putting a price on pollution, as right wing commentators and Republican Party brass have argued.

How do we know? Because for the past two years, NPI has been asking Washingtonians if they support raising revenue to act on climate, and a clear majorities of respondents have said that they do each time.

Here’s our question from earlier this year:

Washington State has committed to meeting the goals of the Paris climate accords as a participant of the recently-formed United States Climate Alliance. Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree or strongly disagree with the following statement: Washington State should levy a tax on pollution to fund projects that would reduce harmful emissions plus accelerate our transition to electric vehicles and renewable energy sources like solar, wind, or geothermal?

And here are the responses we received:

  • Agree: 57%
    • Strongly agree: 40%
    • Somewhat agree: 17%
  • Disagree: 36%
    • Somewhat disagree: 6%
    • Strongly disagree: 30%
  • Not sure: 8%

Our survey of six hundred and seventy-five likely 2018 Washington State voters was in the field May 22nd-23rd, 2018. The survey used a blended methodology with automated phone calls to landlines and online interviews of cell phone only respondents. The poll was conducted by Public Policy Polling for NPI, and has a margin of error of +/- 3.8% at the 95% confidence level.

This and other public opinion research shows that Washingtonians believe in climate science and want to clean pollutants out of our air and water and soil.

But just as with healthcare or any other issue, the devil is in the details. The specifics of any proposal really do matter. The legislative process is perhaps the best place for specifics to be hammered out: argued, critiqued, negotiated, debated.

Sadly, our elected representatives have repeatedly failed to adopt a plan of action to provide resources to care for our common home. And so the people have been asked to act instead: first with I-732 back in 2016, and this year with I-1631.

How do we reconcile the finding above with the demise of I-732 and I-1631?

It’s actually quite simple: Washingtonians definitely want to take action to address climate damage, but they haven’t seen a plan they really like yet.

When it comes to ballot measures, the basic rule of thumb is, if you’re in doubt, you vote no. Many voters figure they’ll get another opportunity to say yes to a better plan later if they vote no on one that they’re unsure about.

And that is actually not an unreasonable assumption, especially when the measure seeks to address a vexing issue that isn’t going away.

I-732 was designed as a tax swap that would use all of the revenue generated from pricing pollution to offset other taxes. Voters didn’t like it.

I-1631 took a different approach, proposing to dedicate the revenue it generated to projects and initiatives to transition us away from fossil fuels to clean energy.

I-1631 is receiving more support than I-732 did, which indicates it’s closer to what people across Washington want to see in a climate action plan.

Big Oil certainly viewed I-1631 as a more credible proposal than I-732, because whereas only minimal resources were brought to bear against that measure, they absolutely smashed spending records in their fight against I-1631.

Big Oil wouldn’t have spent all that money if they thought I-1631 was simply going to collapse under its own weight. They set out to kill it with fire after they saw for themselves in their own research that the measure could pass.

The story of this campaign is that a handful of obscenely rich companies wedded to their profitable fossil fuels business expended a jaw-dropping $30+ million to wage an unprecedented air war against I-1631. This air war went on all autumn long. Over a third of the NO on I-1631 money came from one company: BP.

To ensure I-1631 went down, Big Oil’s hired guns put together a series of ads intended to sow as many seeds of doubt about the measure as possible.

I-1631 was assailed in the ads as a tax on energy that would send billions of dollars to an unaccountable, unelected board to be spent at their whim.

We debunked that false argument here on the Cascadia Advocate, but it went unaddressed by the Yes on I-1631 campaign, which neglected to offer an effective rebuttal closing argument that answered Big Oil’s unceasing attacks, despite having the resources to do so (the Yes campaign raised over $15 million).

To win, the Yes on I-1631 campaign needed to perform well in at least a few swing counties, like Snohomish and Whatcom, but it failed to do so. The initiative has the support of a majority of voters in King, San Juan, and Jefferson counties — the same jurisdictions that supported I-732 two years ago. Elsewhere, it’s not passing.

Since I-1631 is unfortunately not going to become law in December, we need to get to work developing a new plan, pronto.

We can’t be discouraged or deterred by I-1631’s demise. We’ve got to press on, like the adage says: If at first you don’t succeed… try, try again. Or, to paraphrase Edison: we haven’t actually failed, we’ve just found two ways that won’t work.

We didn’t inherit this great green land of Cascadia from our ancestors; rather, we are borrowing it from our children… and we can’t leave them with a legacy of environmental neglect. That would be immoral and irresponsible.

Governor Inslee would be wise to immediately convene a team to study the I-1631 campaign and these election results. The team should develop recommendations to his office and the Legislature, exploring lessons learned and next steps.

We know we are running out of time to prevent catastrophic climate damage. There is an urgent need to come up with a plan to reduce pollution that is sensible and effective. The ball is now back in the Legislature’s court. In 2019, the House and Senate will have expanded Democratic majorities, and a moral obligation to use those majorities to develop a plan that’s better than I-732 and I-1631.

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