By Lou Forristall
I-1631, the second attempt to put a price on carbon emissions in Washington state via ballot initiative, was rejected by voters this November. 1631 sought to place a fee on carbon emissions and use the revenue to fund programs and projects related to the environment. The oil and gas industry spent $31 million to defeat it, annihilating the record in Washington for spending on a ballot initiative.
Despite what has been characterized as 1631’s “resounding defeat,” there is reason for optimism regarding climate action in Washington after 1631. Yes, it lost by about 6 points. But it performed well compared to its 2016 predecessor, I-732. 732 was a revenue neutral carbon tax that lost by almost 10 percent. That’s progress! Small progress, admittedly, but 1631 faced some major hurdles that 732 did not.
First and foremost, the record-setting $31 million spent by the oil and gas industry against 1631 is nearly a 2000% increase in spending compared to the opposition on 732 (about $1.5 million). Supporters of 732 actually outspent their opposition 2:1. The supporters of 1631 were vastly outspent by the opposition, and 1631 still performed better than 732. Also potentially working against 1631 was the fact that it represented a significant move to the political left from I-732. In theory, this would decrease the chances for bipartisan support and the possible pool of “yes” votes. However, by consolidating some votes on the left 1631 still made up ground on 732, suggesting a revenue generating carbon fee like 1631 could be part of successful strategy for environmental advocates.
Although 1631’s performance compared to 732 given the increase in opposition spending and a political move to the left offers hope about the future of a carbon fee in Washington, it was obviously not enough. To look at how environmental advocates could start to move forward in the wake of 1631’s failure, the handful of successful tax and fee ballot initiatives in Washington’s history provide some guidance.
Since 1932, only five initiatives requiring an increase of taxes or fees have passed and they share some common features. Each one either addressed an immediate, high-profile problem, or allocated the money to a popular, at-risk group.
In two of the successful initiatives, widespread high-profile issues regarding environmental hazards and smoking stemming from negatively perceived behaviors were directly addressed. While climate change is recognized as an obvious problem in need of being addressed by some, the results of I-1631 and I-732 show that it is not a sufficiently immediate problem to pass a tax or fee on its own. Similarly, while many Washington voters view emitting carbon as a negative behavior, that opinion is also not widespread enough to pass a ballot measure on its own.
In the other three successful initiatives funds were generated to aid highly sympathetic, popular, at-risk groups: children and the unemployed during the depression, retirees in 1940, and veterans after World War II. 1631 would have allocated 35% of its revenue towards investment in low-income and tribal communities. While these groups are certainly sympathetic, and are at risk due to climate change, they were not popular enough to persuade voters to pass a climate fee.
If environmental advocates make another attempt at a carbon tax in Washington, they need to tie the increase in cost to voters directly to a group that voters are willing to spend money on to help. In addition to keeping the elements of 1631 discussed above that allowed for it to make up ground on 732, any future attempt at a carbon fee should feature specific spending provisions for salmon and orca recovery efforts in Washington. These two species would provide a sympathetic, at-risk group that voters could convince voters an increase in spending and taxes is necessary.
An additional benefit of linking a future carbon fee to salmon and orca recovery is that the exploration of state solutions to these problems is already underway. Some of the biggest criticisms of 1631 were related to how the revenue would be spent, mainly the governor appointed investment panels. Directing some of the revenue from a future carbon fee towards the salmon and orca recovery options already underway and being discussed will provide more concrete spending options for voters to consider.
1631 captured 44% of the vote, a 3% increase from 732. There’s 6% to go, and orcas and salmon can help get there. Environmental advocates can turn a vote against a carbon tax into a vote against salmon. A vote against orcas. After all, that’s exactly what it is.