Washington State Technocrats Spurn the ‘Alberta Approach’

America’s electoral system is frequently critiqued for giving too much power to voters in swing states in Presidential elections, but this year voters in a strongly liberal state may have more impact on U.S. energy policy than any vote for who sits in the oval office.

Initiative Measure-732 (I-732), on the ballot in Washington state this November, would establish the nation’s first ever carbon tax at the state level. For energy and climate policy advocates, the policy is a big deal. For years, economists have argued that a carbon tax is the most efficient policy to combat greenhouse gas emissions. The Kleinman Center recently published a digest on the process the Canadian province of Alberta used to implement such a tax in one of the most fossil-fuel dependent areas in North America.

The Albertan process involved input from industry and environmentalist groups in order to reach a consensus on an equitable path forward. The Washington state process has been far messier, with the Democratic State Party and many environmental groups coming out against the measure alongside business and industrial groups.

The Washington measure’s greatest failing is an inability to rally support from key interest groups. This seems a direct result of its formation—it was written privately by a “group of scientists, economists, former elected officials, business owners and concerned citizens.” While the measure is well formed and good policy, the failure to accept input and receive buy-in before releasing the text has resulted in a policy that few groups have felt an obligation to get behind. After all, they had no part in forming the final product.

A key point of contention is the ballot measure’s proposed revenue neutrality. Rather than increasing taxes, the measure reduces the state sales tax by 1%, effectively eliminates the Business and Occupation tax on Manufacturing, and provides a tax rebate of up to $1,500 per year for lower-income families. The tax on carbon would begin at $15/ton of C02 in 2017, rise to $25/ton in 2018, and afterwards increase at 3.5% plus inflation up to $100/ton. Analyses of the fiscal impacts of the proposal have forecasted a slight dip in revenues, as the extra revenue from the carbon tax would not fully offset the cuts in other areas.

The tax cut strategy, likely proposed to garner support from conservatives and industry, has backfired by alienating key environmentalist groups such as the Sierra Club who adopted a “Do Not Support” stance on the measure because the initiative failed to invest raised funds into clean energy or energy efficiency.

In an election which has seen movements on both the left and the right rigidly reject establishment and technocratic rule in favor of populist rhetoric, a bill formed by academics and politicians with little public input did itself no favors.

The result of such internecine fighting among Washington state’s liberals is a ballot measure which would be the biggest step toward fighting climate change ever taken by a U.S. state in the fight of its life against the very groups most vocal in support of mitigation policies. State polling from KOMO News last week showed the measure with a 42.0% to 36.8% edge over the opposition. With 21.2% of voters undecided however, the measure is far from victory less than a month from voting.

Should the measure fail, the initiative’s advocates should take a page from the Alberta playbook and bring environmentalists and industry to the negotiating table to hammer out a new proposal that all can support.

Dillon Weber

Research Assistant
Dillon Weber was a research fellow at the Kleinman Center and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania majoring in chemical and biomolecular engineering and economics.