Washington state $10-a-ton carbon-tax proposal takes key step in Legislature
OLYMPIA — A version of Gov. Jay Inslee’s carbon-tax proposal took a key step forward Thursday night in the Washington Legislature.
Lawmakers approved the legislation in a vote of the state Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee.
For years Inslee has introduced ambitious plans to fight climate change that have landed with a thud in the Legislature. But Thursday’s action was the first time one of his major carbon proposals got any kind of vote by lawmakers.
It passed out of committee on a 6-to-4 vote.
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“It’s a big deal,” said Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, chair of the committee and sponsor of the bill, SB 6203.
The bill, which next goes to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, still faces a steep uphill climb before getting to Inslee’s desk to be signed into law.
Democratic legislative leaders have been noncommittal about advancing the plan to full votes of the House and Senate. And Republicans have largely dismissed the proposal as effectively a tax on gas and electricity.
But Thursday’s result scrambled the typical party-line vote often seen in Olympia — and kept alive discussions about the proposal.
Calling it a “pretty sizable gas-tax increase,” Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, voted against SB 6203.
Meanwhile, Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Democrat from Potlatch, Mason County, who in recent years has caucused with Republicans, voted for the proposal.
Sheldon said he wouldn’t support the carbon-tax bill in a full Senate vote right now. But Sheldon said he worries voters could see a carbon-tax measure on the ballot in November — a proposal lawmakers wouldn’t be able to control.
“I think we need to keep the bill going so we can talk about this issue,” he said.
Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, voted “without recommendation,” which isn’t a yes — but isn’t quite a no, either.
Hawkins said he has questions and concerns about the bill, including its impact on farmers, who not only use heavy equipment but also drive pickup trucks.
But Hawkins said he wants to have a voice in the debate, and he suggested the entire committee serve as a sort of working group to hash out ideas.
As part of a new version, Carlyle said he plans to introduce a state constitutional amendment that would lock in the carbon tax so it couldn’t easily be changed later.
Earlier this year, Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he wanted to see a constitutional amendment to make sure lawmakers couldn’t later expand the tax.
The new version of SB 6203 approved Thursday represents a substantial downsizing from the carbon tax proposed in an initial bill.
The legislation that moved Thursday would impose a $10-a-ton carbon tax — equivalent to about a 9 cents a gallon on gasoline — in 2019. It would climb each year by $2 a ton until it reached a cap of $30 a ton.
Inslee’s initial proposal would have started with a $20-a-ton carbon tax and increased each year with no cap.
The governor is open to different versions as long as they reduce carbon use, said Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith, adding: “He hasn’t been wed to the exact proposal he put out.”
The carbon tax is part of a broader package of bills intended to reduce greenhouse gases linked to climate change. Some of the other measures also are moving in the Legislature.
The Senate energy committee on Thursday also approved a bill pushing utilities to acquire new power resources from renewables and other sources that do not produce carbon pollution.
Senate Bill 6253 calls for that new standard to kick in by 2020, and for the utilities to get all their power — if possible — from carbon-free resources by 2045.
The measure gained support from some Republicans as well as Democrats, but only after an amendment was approved giving utilities more wiggle room in compliance. One part of the amendment says that financial penalties for not meeting the requirements could be waived if a utility is unable to acquire enough renewable power.
The House Energy and Technology Committee voted Thursday to approve a similar bill of its own. HB 2283, sponsored by Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, would require utilities — as of 2020 — to acquire only carbon-free energy for new power resources.