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Carbon Taxing: A Distinction With A Difference, Franz/Inslee

Jim Boldt, President of Duckabush Communications/Public Affairs, wrote the following opinion piece about Gov. Inslee’s upcoming proposed carbon tax.

Why Do We Still Spend Time Debating If Green House Gases Are Ruining Our Planet, Our Lives?

The negative impact of carbon based gases on our atmosphere, our weather and our general well being is so logical and so common-sense that you have to intentionally choose to ignore it or deny it for mere stubbornness, or ideological reasons. Both of which will keep us on our path of peril, and God bless our grandchildren. Who has not moved from the bellow of campfire smoke or even motor exhaust to reach fresh air?

Not to debate the chemistry, a very interesting, left-splitting, situation popped up in Washington State last week. A week before today’s start of what will be yet another mud tossing, “we-need-more-money” legislative session. Independently elected State Land Commissioner, Hilary Franz announced her treatise on the taxing of carbon emissions as a public policy. Finally there is an adult at the table.

The Distinction

Commissioner Franz, who is in charge of watching over public lands, connected the dots. She asked the legislature to use proceeds from whatever convoluted carbon taxing scheme emerges from the session to be used for…get ready…actually doing something to mitigate carbon and it’s impact on our state lands. Governor Inslee wants to use any money from any carbon tax to pay for stuff that has nothing or little to do with abatement of carbon or reduction of its presence. The Governor wants to dump the money into the state general fund but ear-mark it for education. More specifically he wants to ride the McCleary lawsuit funding squeeze and “help the kids.” What this means in English is the money will go to education, which is 85-90 percent salaries for teachers. Teachers, many of whom  belong to the Washington Education Association (WEA). We all know the politics of the WEA, don’t we? You don’t need to be a “rocket surgeon” (to use George Bush’s term) to know that money spent on schools will do very little if anything to mitigate the apocalyptic march of green house gases in our atmosphere. If the legislature believes we need to put more money into our K-12 system, then raise some general taxes during the 2018 election year, and accomplish the paramount duty.

Counter Intuitive Taxation, A History

Again, if you are sane, you will quickly realize how counter intuitive it is to tax carbon as a funding source for our children’s education. We are getting money from the production of compounds that we want to eliminate.  Because, if successful, use of carbon based products will diminish if use becomes too expensive. This in turn, will reduce the revenue from any carbon tax, and in the Governor’s case, reduce funds to our “paramount duty” as a state; the education of our children. That’s a pretty important task (“paramount” as stated in the constitution) to leave to the laws of economic elasticity and reduction. One more time; we want to get rid of something so we tax it so folks can’t afford to use it, yet we use the proceeds from the tax to fund the most important program of our state government. If we reduce the use of carbon we will reduce our funding source for the kids. Duh!!!

It would be less remarkable if this were the first time this was tried and we could stop it right now. But, our state lawmakers, and through initiative law-writing, we have a crazy history of funding critical services and programs with revenue from products we hope to eliminate. We tax it, then set other policies in place to rid the state of the product, or reduce its use. Take the  clean up of Puget Sound and our marine water bodies. Our state increased taxes on tobacco and used the funds to clean up the Sound. We must assume that the legislature and others thought cleaning up Puget Sound was important, yet they funded it with a tax on the use of a product we also want to stop—smoking and using tobacco products. Our state even funds cessation efforts so less tobacco will be used, less bought, lowering the revenue and leaving poor old Puget Sound without a cleanup effort. Civil order could proceed if the tobacco example was a one-off, but oh no. Take the Model Toxics Act; we tax toxic substances, which we all assume we want to go away, and we use the tax funds to clean up toxic dump sites. Well, you guessed it, as our laws and policies slowly restrict the production and use of toxic products, our tax proceeds are reduced and the dumps are still needing clean up. Add to this, as in the case of numerous dedicated trust funds, the legislature steals the money and sends it off to…again, you guessed it, the general fund and education. Not so much trust in the trust funds, huh?

Back to education, our state Department of Natural Resources, managed by the Public Lands Commissioner (yes, Franz) manages public lands and the proceeds go to pay for school construction through, yes, yet another trust account. But when it comes to public forests, our dichotomy is alive and well. State and federal government follows up with more restrictions for logging. No logs, no cutting of trees. No cutting of trees, no stumps to count. No stumps, no stumpage fee to pay for schools.

The Conflict

Now, back to the carbon conundrum. If Franz could use the carbon tax proceeds to restore and beef up public lands and the vegetation that actually gobbles up carbon and turns it into oxygen, will the Greeners part with their hero, Inslee, and support Franz’s effort? Or, will the progressives, stay with Inslee, swallow yet another self-defeating public policy, and use the carbon tax money to aid education, give teachers salary increases, and fill the PACs? And what of the tribes, and labor? Tribes have been unwavering supporters and demanding better environmental programs in our state. They often side with the progressives and the Democrats due to environmental programs from the left. Franz is talking their language with her plan for protection and enhancement of marine and fresh water aquatic lands, as well as thousands of acres of trees and grasses, and farms and forests that must be maintained. Some of these lands, which are slowly being smothered by the pressure of weather and pollution issues, are themselves revenue generating and raise money for the school construction trust account.

Pay Me Now Or Pay Me Later

Yes, the carbon situation is like a pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later thing, but in law creation it has a different meaning. Our state is on a trajectory for a carbon initiative or two; initiative as in signatures and ballot vote. If the legislature does not pass a carbon tax law, it is assured that some coalition of folks in our state will fund putting a carbon tax law on the ballot for approval or rejection in November of 2018. As we have learned from experience, laws written in backrooms and on bar tables by well intended groups do not enjoy the thoroughness of the inclusive knock-down-drag-out brawl called the Washington Legislature. Many of our initiative-hatched laws go into effect a little wanting at times.

So are there three pathways here? Carbon tax for education, carbon tax to reduce carbon, or non-legislature initiative process and whatever that will bring? Will an initiative dare designate use of the tax money and chance being unconstitutional for having more than one subject; taxes and appropriation? If so, will the drafters go with spending the tax money on stuff that  actually will reduce carbon production, and mitigate its impact, or will they pen a plan for funding education, or roads, or Amtrak tracks?

If the legislature steps up to the carbon issue and passes a carbon tax of some sort, what will they do with the money? Will it go down the bottomless chute of K-12 funding where there is never, ever enough money?  Or, maybe in a moment of clarity the collective push from the legislature will actually use carbon tax funds to…here it comes…reduce carbon. Wow, what a novel idea.

Did someone say, “Franz for Governor?”