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Washington Initiative To Create Carbon Tax Turns In Signatures

Carbon Washington campaign supporters deliver boxes of initiative petitions to Washington's Secretary of State in Olympia Thursday.
Tom Banse
Northwest News Network
Carbon Washington campaign supporters deliver boxes of initiative petitions to Washington's Secretary of State in Olympia Thursday.

Supporters of a citizens’ initiative to create a new tax on carbon emissions in Washington state have delivered most of the petition signatures they need to put their issue before the legislature -- and then on the 2016 ballot.

A line of climate change activists each carrying a box of petitions marched into the Washington Secretary of State's office Thursday with nearly 250,000 signatures.

"It just has been amazing to see the grassroots energy building around this campaign as we move towards a campaign that will hopefully bring to Washington state the first revenue neutral carbon tax in the United States," chief sponsor Yoram Bauman said to cheers from those supporters.

The number of delivered signatures would be just enough to meet the qualification threshold if each one was valid, but there are always duplicates and unregistered voter names in a statewide petition drive. So Bauman said the Initiative 732 campaign, called Carbon Washington, intends to gather more to ensure success before a New Year's Eve deadline.

"We wanted to provide evidence that we're for real and that we have a terrific path at making the ballot,” he said.

Bauman said I-732 was inspired by British Columbia's carbon tax. The measure would levy a new tax on fossil fuels and use the money to lower existing state taxes.

This entails a $15 per metric ton tax on carbon emissions starting in July 2017, rising to $25 per ton in the second year and then gradually increasing over time. Revenues would be used to cut the Washington state sales tax by a penny per dollar, eliminate business taxes for manufacturers and provide a rebate to low-income families.

Bauman said his campaign is meeting with backers of a separate planned carbon tax initiative to try to forestall having two competing measures on the ballot at the same time.

The rival initiative to the people is being drafted by a steering committee of environmental, labor and community leaders calling themselves the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy. Their planned initiative would not be "revenue neutral."

A fact sheet from the Alliance said it is "currently exploring reinvestment options" for the money raised by the fees on carbon, which could include rebates to mitigate energy cost increases for low income families and spending to "help businesses and workers in fossil fuel-reliant industries in the transition away from fossil fuels."

The object of the conversations between the two campaigns according to Alliance communications director Brendan McLaughlin is to coalesce around "a single viable climate initiative for the 2016 ballot." He said having two initiatives on the ballot "is not good for either."

Bauman was cagey about what, if any, movement is happening behind the scenes.

"Right now, I think there are groups that are on the same team, but they are not currently on the same page,” he said. “So the conversations are to see if we can figure out a way to get us all on the same page.”

As an Initiative to the Legislature, I-732 goes through a slightly more complicated process than a ballot measure presented directly to voters at the next general election. Assuming the Carbon Washington campaign secures the necessary qualifying signatures, the initiative would go before the 2016 Washington Legislature in January. Lawmakers could adopt the initiative as proposed, but that appears highly unlikely.

Based on past practice, the Legislature is more likely to hold a hearing on the initiative and then decline to act, which automatically sends the matter to the November 2016 ballot. Lawmakers also have the option to propose an alternative to the initiative and place both before voters next year.

"We continue to monitor this [I-732] and all issues that could have a potentially chilling effect on Washington state's business climate and family-wage job creation," said Jocelyn McCabe, spokeswoman for Keep Washington Competitive, a recently formed coalition of business groups, international trade figures and labor leaders.

"Basically, we want to be sure any new policies don't create problems for our regulatory climate that would slow employment, adversely affect investment or negatively impact our export trade growth, as the most trade-dependent state in the nation," she said in an emailed statement.

Copyright 2015 Northwest News Network

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.