If the proposal, Initiative 1631, wins — as we hope it does — the result could ripple beyond Washington’s boundaries. No state can match California’s impressively broad suite of clean-energy programs, but the initiative, if successful, could catapult Jay Inslee, Washington’s governor, into the climate leadership role long occupied by the outgoing California governor, Jerry Brown. More important, it could provide a template, or at least valuable lessons, for other states to follow; and (let’s dream for a moment) it might even encourage Congress to take action on a national program.
Initiative 1631 is substantially different from the measure that failed spectacularly two years ago, and which Mr. Inslee voted against. That measure was advertised as revenue-neutral (meaning no net gain to the government). The money raised through carbon taxes would have been mostly returned to state residents through a reduction in the sales tax. This was intended to appeal to conservatives who didn’t want the tax to underwrite new government programs, but it turned out that many conservatives, like a lot of others, wanted real programs for their money, not just a tax shift.
Initiative 1631 aims to do that. On the revenue side, it would impose a $15 per metric ton fee on carbon emissions starting in 2020, increasing by $2 per year until the state’s 2035 carbon reduction goals are met. The state estimates that the levy would generate $2.2 billion in its first five years. The initiative’s supporters say that gasoline prices would rise about 13 cents a gallon in 2020, and would, overall, cost most citizens about $10 a month.
As for spending the money, about 70 percent of the proceeds would be invested in projects to accelerate the state’s transition from fossil fuels — public transportation, energy efficiency, wind and solar plants, and so on — and the rest on protecting forests and streams and shielding low-income ratepayers from higher electricity bills. There are exemptions — for the state’s only operating coal-fired power plant, which is scheduled to close in 2025, and for the state’s largest employer, Boeing, which competes in foreign markets. All in all, the initiative covers about 80 percent of Washington’s climate-warming emissions.
Groups that opposed the 2016 initiative, like the Sierra Club, have flocked to this one. As David Roberts has noted in Vox, “Tying the revenue from a dirty-energy tax to clean-energy investments is intuitively appealing.” He has also noted, however, that carbon pricing is no cure-all.