Not Your Run of the Millage: How Washington State’s Carbon Fee Ballot Proposal Addresses Transportation

October 23, 2018

Funding better transportation tends to be a winning proposition at the ballot box—with a success rate around 70 percent (See Eno’s 2016 Transportation Ballot Measures Recap, 2018 database, and podcast miniseries all detailing state ballot initiatives). While the vast majority of these referenda are presented to the voters as millage rate property tax increases, Washington State is tackling a rather amorphous revenue source: carbon emissions.

Initiative 1631 (I-1631), the Washington Carbon Emissions Fee and Revenue Allocation Initiative, proposes a fee of $15 per metric ton of industrial, commercial, and transportation-related carbon content. Beginning in 2020, the fee would then increase $2 (plus inflation) annually until the state meets its 2035 greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Due to state law, the “fee” must support new, climate-specific efforts; this distinguishes it from a “tax” funding existing programs through general accounts (i.e. ongoing public transit operations). The proposed carbon fee encompasses the breadth of a statewide transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy through public health, energy efficiency, ecosystem restoration, and “green jobs” interventions and investments, but recognizes that transportation is an essential component in achieving the overall proposal’s climate adaptation and mitigation goals.

This account would adhere to the following allocation of funds generated from the fee:

  • 70 percent: Clean Air and Clean Energy Infrastructure
    • Of this, a minimum of 15 percent must go toward helping low-income residents and communities, specifically those that would bear the brunt of climate change impacts and economic transition away from fossil fuels.
    • New transportation infrastructure investments fall under this category.
  • 25 percent: Clean Water and Forests
  • 5 percent: Local “Healthy Communities”

Earlier this year, two Washington state Senate carbon tax bills included explicit allocations toward multimodal transportation investments: 40 percent in SB 6335 and 30 percent in the final version of SB 6203. The latter bill—vocally supported by the governor—cleared two key committees, but fell a few votes short in the Democrat-controlled upper chamber. This legislative defeat spurred local advocates to advance the policy through a ballot proposal and bypass senatorial politics.

However, I-1631 does not designate an explicit proportion of funds solely for transportation. The provisions related to eligible transportation and public transit investments are found in Section 4 titled Clean Air and Clean Energy Investments of the 38-page initiative language:

(d) Programs, activities, or projects that reduce transportation-related carbon emissions, including but not limited to programs, activities, or projects that:

(i) Accelerate the deployment of zero-emission fleets and vehicles, including off-road and maritime vehicles, create zero emission vehicle refueling infrastructure, or deploy grid infrastructure to integrate electric vehicles and charging equipment;

(ii) Reduce vehicle miles traveled or increase public transportation, including investing in public transit, transportation demand management, nonmotorized transportation, affordable transit-oriented housing, and high-speed rural broadband to facilitate telecommuting options such as telemedicine or online job training; or

(iii) Increase fuel efficiency in vehicles and vessels where options to convert to zero-emissions, low-carbon fuels, or public transportation are cost-prohibitive and inapplicable or unavailable

Support and Opposition

Both sides have alluded to how they envision the money would be spent on transportation if I-1631 passes. The “no” on I-1631 coalition cites a brief from the self-described “free-market” Washington Policy Center think tank that suggests the proposition’s language about “transportation demand management” would lead to new tolling booths on state highways and hike up individuals’ daily monetary travel costs. They also note how consumption taxes, including those on carbon, are known to be regressive, meaning low-income individuals and households spend a greater proportion of their earnings paying the tax than those with higher incomes. However, the tax burden distribution depends on how major polluters (i.e. oil and gas companies) choose to pass increased costs onto consumers.

According to the “yes” coalition’s website featuring a map of possible local investments, clean energy affiliated transportation projects might include a transit center at a community college, purchasing battery-electric or hybrid diesel-electric vehicles to replace gas-guzzling transit and school bus fleets, and operationalizing express bus routes connecting ferries to downtown districts. These are pitched as a hypothetical variety of attainable actions and investments toward reducing vehicle pollution and offering more affordable mobility options for underserved communities.

What to Watch

This is not the first time a carbon tax has been presented to Washington voters. The 2016 ballot included Initiative 732, which lost 58-42. Rather than repeating I-732’s appeal to the center through a revenue-neutral approach, progressive advocates sought to “unite the left” coalition while carefully crafting the 2018 proposal.

As of early October, one survey finds 50 percent in favor, 36 percent against, and 14 percent undecided, but there are not enough polls to provide certainty of public opinion. Other signs point to high Democratic turnout that is expected to handily reelect incumbent Governor Jay Inslee and likely support the measure.

If I-1631 passes, Washington would be the first state to enforce carbon pricing in the United States. Most of the initiative’s attention has gravitated toward state-driven defiance of federal environmental protection rollbacks through direct democracy and the implications for progressive environmental advocacy strategy. If successful, the proposition’s implementation and statewide transportation project selection—imbued with the measure’s overall emphasis on equity—could also set precedent for climate-minded planning and policy across the nation.

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