All signs point to the ballot – Now is the time for a carbon price in Washington

“Headed to Olympia to turn in signatures. Then headed to the ballot in November!” – @yeson1631 / Twitter

On Monday morning, organizers and volunteers for the “Yes on 1631” campaign prepared to board an electric bus and head to Olympia, Washington. The individuals representing labor, tribal, and environmental groups typically visit the State Capital to lobby on issues directly related to their organizations. This time however, the group was united around one policy and had valuable cargo in tow.

The bus carried the volunteers and their precious cargo to the WA Secretary of State’s office. That cargo: boxes containing hundreds of thousands of signatures. Signatures which represented months of work and the potential for carbon pricing to be on the state ballot come November.

The massive task of gathering all these signatures took place over a short 4-month window. Although the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy (the coalition behind “Yes on I-1631”) could have started the collection process in January, the Governor had proposed his own carbon pricing legislation for the short session ending in March. We analyzed the policy here. The coalition decided to wait until the bill was passed or the session ended before pursuing their initiative. S. 6203 ended up being sent to study and AJCE officially announced their initiative the same week.

The months that followed were dominated by a grassroots signature gathering campaign with the goal of collecting 259,622 valid signatures from registered voters. Volunteers and paid staffers alike travelled around the state of Washington and tabled at farmer’s markets, stood outside of community colleges, and attended local fairs to reach voters across the state. Ultimately, the group surpassed expectations and gathered a total of 375,000 signatures. This margin gives the coalition breathing room for when a number of invalid signatures are inevitably struck from those submitted. Although it is not yet official, it is expected that I-1631 will be voted on by Washingtonians in the fall.

How does this particular campaign differ from past campaigns in Washington?

Washington is lucky to have a Governor who supports carbon pricing and has tried since 2014 to pass a cap-and-trade policy, and more recently a direct carbon pricing policy. However, these executive-led attempts have proven unsuccessful in the legislature.
CarbonWA took a different approach two years ago, proposing the first carbon pricing ballot initiative (I-732) in Washington. The policy was centered around a price on carbon, a tax swap, and a rebate to protect low income families. The revenue-neutral proposal ultimately divided environmental groups, some of whom criticized it for not apportioning funds for clean energy investment programs. I-732 ultimately lost at the ballot with 40% of the vote.
I-1631 is revenue-positive and was developed by a wide-reaching coalition of tribal, environmental, and labor organizations. As a result, the policy has inclusive language that dedicates funds toward the communities most impacted by climate change and ensures them a seat at the table. The policy does not include a rebate program. For more details on the language of the ballot initiative, read my breakdown here.

How does this initiative compare to other carbon pricing attempts across the country and why does it matter that it’s happening now?

Although there were many carbon pricing campaigns across the country this year, and there still are two ongoing (Washington D.C. and Massachusetts), this is the only one being considered through the ballot. All other attempts have largely taken place through a legislative process. The inability of these campaigns to gain traction hinges greatly on the lack of political will to push forward a measure that could be unpopular in politicians’ districts, with critics saying carbon pricing will result in increased utility and gasoline bills for consumers. Although this is certainly a possibility, there are ways to mitigate the potentially negative consequences of a carbon price. Policy wonks working on the issue have devised targeted dividend systems to return a portion of the fees to the most vulnerable populations, resulting in most low and moderate income households coming out ahead from the combination of fees and rebates.
However, these policy details can sometimes get lost in the noise drummed up by big oil interests. This is exactly what the newly formed “No on 1631” campaign will seek to do. The group is sponsored by the Western States Petroleum Association and is funded almost exclusively by big oil companies including BP, Chevron and Shell. But there is a rising tide of progressive political will among voters who increasingly support putting a price on carbon, as evidenced by post-mortem polling of the 2016 I-732 initiative, which suggested that 67% of Washingtonians want to see policies like carbon pricing to fight climate change.
Additionally, the anger and energy that has been generated by the Trump administration seems to be uniting the left, fueling organizers, and combating voter apathy. One relevant example is the recent primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the NY-14 congressional district. The 28 year-old former bartender organized a grassroots campaign, hit the streets hard and managed to unseat a 20-year congressman who was in line to be the Speaker of the House. Her platform included the strongest climate policy goals of any politician in America, campaigning on a “100% renewable energy system and a fully modernized electrical grid by 2035.” Her win has sparked interest in other candidates like her, including Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley, who similarly faces a 20-year Washington veteran in Mike Capuano.
If November shapes up to be the blue wave of Democrat’s dreams, the underlying energy and voter turnout may favor more progressive policies than in the past. Taking a grassroots carbon pricing policy to the people this fall may be the best shot state-level carbon pricing has ever had in the US.