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Politics is the strong and slow boring of hard boards, Washington climate bill edition

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732

A reader asked for a post on I-732, a carbon tax on the ballot in Washington State. I’ve been avoiding writing about it because the story is too depressing, but it should be done. A series of loosely connected observations and commentary on 732 and related issues follows.

• Rather than try to offer my own summary, I’ll begin by simply assigning Dave Roberts’ piece on the history and the politics. It’s very good. Go read it.

• First things first: whether your sympathies lie with the alliance or CarbonWA, vote yes.

• Seriously, vote yes. If you don’t believe me listen to these climate scientists.

• A few months ago I was much angrier and would have written very nasty, snide things about 350.org, the Sierra Club, and Jay Inslee, had I written this post then. Now, I’m feeling a bit more appreciative of the tragic nature of the alliance/carbonWA split. At most points in time over the last six years, there have been plausible and sympathetic reasons to support both sides and both approaches.

• That said, that CarbonWA was able to agree on the text of an initiative and get it on the ballot and the Alliance hasn’t yet agreed on exactly what their initiative would look like is revealing: coalition politics are vital and important, but for the purposes of constructing an initiative designed to win statewide but also satisfy all key coalition-partners with diverse goals can be debilitating.

• With this in mind, while I obviously wasn’t privy to the December negotiations between the two groups, the claim reported by Roberts that internal polls and research showed the Alliance approach had a better chance of passing should be treated with a great deal of skepticism. For one thing, they were comparing an actual initiative vs. a theoretical one, and it’s easier to disguise the warts of the latter.

• Furthermore, there’s a decent case to be made that the median voter in Washington is a suburban white affluent moderate who is susceptible to anti-tax, anti-big government rhetoric but nevertheless concerned about the environment. A revenue neutral tax re-structure might be necessary to win them over. The alliance people are almost certainly correct that revenue neutrality won’t win over actual Republicans, but that’s beside the point. There’s a population of once-R-leaning, now probably D-leaning moderates who are still all too easily spooked by tax increases, especially general ones.

• That said, if I were designing a bill from scratch, I might have aimed for a slightly revenue positive bill, with the increased revenue earmarked for clean energy projects. That probably would be just as, or slightly more, appealing to the median voter in Washington state. But evaluating an actual proposal against a perfect one in one’s head isn’t a reasonable standard for initiatives.

• There’s a part of me that can’t help but see the desire to use a climate bill as the kludge to DO ALL THE PROGRESSIVE THINGS like fix the tax structure, fund McCleary, deal with the whole “most regressive tax structure of all 50 states” problem and so on is a way of not taking climate change sufficiently seriously. This is particularly the case in a state in which previous efforts with full Democratic control of state government manifestly failed. I’m old enough to remember when Ron Sims ran against Christine Gregoire for in the Democratic primary for governor in 2004 on a revenue neutral to the state, positive to the taxpayer income tax, and was trounced by his status-quo supporting opponent by a better than 2-1 margin. Granted, she had some advantages over him and was likely to win regardless, but that was still a clear rebuke of a tax overhaul. Climate change policy can’t solve all our problems, and it’s hard not to conclude that the alliance was treating it as something of a magic bullet.

• It’s worth keeping in mind that while 732 doesn’t fix the fundamentally regressive nature of state taxation, it does make the tax code less regressive than it currently is—in fact it does more on that front than has been accomplished by anyone else in Washington politics recently.

• Also, as the California example demonstrates, when the time and the politics are right a carbon tax can be revisited to emphasize other progressive priorities.

• If this fails and the alliance moves forward with an initiative in two years just in time for the Hillary backlash election, God help us.

• Also, if you’re in the ST zone and care about the climate please vote yes on ST3. There’s lots of details about for us transit nerds to be frustrated with, but it’s a) really pretty good overall, especially by North American standards, and b) the only realistic alternative is a delayed, cheaper version of what’s currently on offer. And one of the reasons I’ve come around on prioritizing rail to emptier parts of suburbs over rail in the city is at least there’s a chance for dense development there–the first round of light rail in the city has demonstrated that moderately dense established Seattle neighborhoods just have too many politically powerful wealthy homeowners who know how to play anti-upzone politics, while some suburbs (Lynnwood and Shoreline in particular) are proving more enthusiastic about station-adjacent upzones than Seattle has been. Hell, there are still empty lots less than a quarter-mile from light rail stations that opened in 2008 zoned for 2-3 stories.

• Also, if you actually care about not cooking the planet, you can’t really justify anti-density activism. If you commute via Hummer 200 miles a day or whatever, that’s bad, but what DiCaprio et al are trying to do is infinitely worse—you’re forcing many thousands of present and future people to pump more carbon into the air for many decades to come, including some people who would choose not to, if allowed to make that choice. If parking inconveniences, or not having to look at newer and taller buildings than you’d prefer for aesthetic reasons are more important than the future of the planet, fine, but own that preference ordering.

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