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(The author has contributed to the I-732 campaign but has no other affiliation with it.)

Initiative 732 would establish a tax on fossil fuels consumed in Washington State, ramping up over 2 years to the equivalent of $25/ton of carbon emissions, and then increasing by 3.5%/year (plus inflation). The revenue would be used to reduce the state sales tax , eliminate the B&O tax for manufacturing, and provide sales-tax rebates to low-income working families.
The I-732 campaign is currently collecting signatures to place the initiative on the November ballot. Further details are available at http://carbonwa.org

Why a revenue-neutral carbon tax?

Most transit advocates are also carbon-reduction advocates, and likely favor some sort of carbon pricing. But why-revenue neutral? Why not designate the proceeds for transit funding and perhaps other climate-friendly government spending?
First and foremost, it is critical to gain consensus in favor of carbon reduction. Without very strong and broad popular support, carbon pricing legislation will fail in the face of spending by fossil-fuel industries and their focus on anti-tax messaging that (whatever your opinion of it) is popular with a large segment of voters. Many moderate and even some conservative voters recognize the dangers of climate change and would favor some climate action. But they are not likely to be urbanists, passionate about transit, nor friendly to increased taxes. Still, we are all agreed on the importance of carbon reduction, and a proposal that focuses on that single objective can gain the necessary consensus across progressive, many moderate, and some conservative voters.

What is the goal?

To insist on bundling carbon pricing with other progressive causes endangers that consensus. We have a choice: insist on the entirety of our individual agendas, or find common ground with enough voters to succeed on this critical issue. A revenue-neutral carbon tax provides that common ground.
And once we DO succeed, then we can continue the important debates about further aspects of land use, transportation, and equity.

6 Replies to “Why transit advocates should support I-732: Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax”

  1. I’ll sign the petition and vote “Yes” if it makes it to the ballot. This is exactly the right way to achieve this. Don’t make it about “sacrifice” or “punishing the fossil fuel industry” or funding [insert your favorite program here]”. Make it purely about incentivizing the use of low-carbon energy sources.

    Thank you.

  2. I have to agree with this. Sales tax discourages, um, sales of products; but we want to encourage sales of products. Carbon tax discourages pollution, which is what we want to discourage. This is a very solid idea.

  3. This has zero chance of passing in Washington today. If it makes the ballot Boeing will use it as the latest excuse to threaten its Washington manufacturing facilities, and of course the Kemper-ist “cheap driving as birthright” crowd won’t stand for it. Every conservative politician and pundit will oppose it as sure as they cash their campaign donation checks from big businesses. Liberal politicians, from the suburban swing-district highway-loving moderates that got us the big transportation package to Kshama Sawant, will oppose it as hitting the working class particularly hard, which it would in a number of ways. It will probably lose steam after Inslee’s announcement of pollution caps, whether or not the caps end up having teeth.

    The fact that it cannot possibly pass frees us to vote for it against our legitimate concerns about going alone as a state (or even as a country) on a carbon tax, or about social justice (briefly put, my beliefs on this are these). The initiative becomes, essentially, an advisory measure. And we should vote for it because it’s basically the correct policy (for the world). We should also vote for it put pressure on legislators that consistently trade off environmental concerns, to give legislators with lots of green supporters a green light to bring up similar proposals in the legislator (where they will, for now, also fail), to maybe get people that matter to express opinions on the details of carbon tax proposals.

    1. Many things started city by city, or state by province, until they finally were adopted nationally. In fact, most things are probably this way, since states are the “laboratories of democracy”. And we’re not going it alone: California has cap-n-trade, Vancouver has a carbon tax, and all the western states and provinces are pursuing a “Western Climate Initiative” with varying degrees of implementation.

      Re social justice and poverty, the principle is that money is transferred from the highest carbon users to the general public, and that puts more money in poor people’s pockets as a side effect. One article I read a while ago compared this to Alaska’s permanent fund, where oil-drilling royalties go to state residents, and suggested that once it’s implemented for carbon, it could be implemented for other things with environmental externalities. That could be one component of a “basic income” that everybody would get just for being alive, a dividend from their share in public assets. But back to the poor. While they drive more by necessity (suburban poverty), they have the smallest houses, they don’t have big lawns or swimming pools, they don’t buy tons of food that goes to waste, etc, so their total carbon usage is relatively small, thus they’d automatically pay a smaller carbon tax.

      1. Most of the things we buy have a significant carbon footprint; a proper carbon tax is similar to a sales tax in terms of impact on consumers. I’ve read claims that carbon footprint tends to grow slower with income than total spending because people with more disposable income tend to buy more overpriced goods (i.e. pay higher profit margins). A $2,000 bike doesn’t account for ten times the raw materials as a $200 bike.

        I totally agree that a flat per-person refund is a good way to mitigate this sort of thing. Another, of course, is to provide services and infrastructure with broad public benefit, and to provide them equitably.

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