Upcoming Conference | 2019 Re-Wire Policy Conference, Dec 10, 2019 Register

Editorial: The Cap is Out. Now What?

The Nation’s Greenest Governor is Losing his Carbon Pricing Crusade in the Legislature. Bipartisan Outcome is Still Possible.

Electric vehicle tax and regulatory incentives, millions in technology investment through the Clean Energy Fund, incentives for solar and distributed energy, refocusing I-937 on carbon reduction and ending coal by wire — in any other year, this collection of bills would be considered the makings of a major deal. Even more remarkable: the coalescence of bipartisan support for these proposals. For example, conservatives like Representatives Dick Muri and Ed Orcutt have revealed themselves as the legislature’s strongest advocates of electric vehicles.

Governor Inslee and the environmental community, however, are not charmed. Since establishing the Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup in early 2013 they’ve made it their mission to install a large, market wide mechanism to regulate carbon emission in the image of California. Despite favorable polls, there hasn’t been much movement among stakeholder groups and legislators since the Governor announced his Cap & Trade proposal. Proponents chose a predictable path: use the legislative session as a focus group to undergo some battle testing aware it doesn’t stand a chance of passing, decry Republican obstructionism, and channel the momentum into an initiative campaign in 2016.

It’s a good playbook, some variation of which has been tried on gun control, marriage equality, and the Dream Act to varying degrees of success. But it’s also a slash and burn tactic that doesn’t provide much incentive for suburban and rural Democrats with “major polluters” in their district to take a risky, symbolic vote. It also negates the possibility, that left to its own demise, the legislature would respond to the Governor by offering its own basket of alternative solutions.

The House budget (announced on Friday) did not include revenue from Cap-and-Trade, confirming what observers had suspected for months: the votes aren’t there. And hence the rub, dare we say annoyance, that after occupying our political imaginations for the better part of two years, the Governor couldn’t deliver in a Democrat-controlled House.

Meanwhile, it cannot be said that Republicans have not given ground on this issue. In 2006 when voters passed Initiative 937, the authors jumped through hoops to explain (in the most palatable terms) what the intent of the measure was. Rather than cite climate change, the initiative was marketed as a bill to reduce reliance on foreign fuels, create jobs, and improve local air quality.

Fast forward to the 2015 legislative session when news reports highlighted a dustup over a floor amendment proposed by Senate Republicans which explicitly stated that climate change was real and affecting the state. While the amendment language may fall short of Governor Inslee’s aspirations, in contrast to states like Florida, where Governor Rick Scott banned use of the term “climate change” in his administration, Washington has come pretty far. To his credit, Governor Inslee has managed to elevate carbon reduction from a one party monologue to a more balanced conversation.

Achieving his policy aims has proven more challenging. In response to the House Democrat’s budget, Governor Inslee said he was “disappointed”. Fair enough, but other bills addressing carbon reduction give reason for optimism. One place to look is SB 5735, which uses the mechanisms under I-937 to move electrons and natural gas into the transportation sector, the state’s greatest source of carbon emissions. The bill received a warm welcome in the House last week. These bills, and others like it, are in need of a champion to offer thoughtful amendments and sort out differences between the House and Senate. It’s a key role Governor Inslee can play if he so chooses.

Creating a bipartisan outcome will mean stepping back from Cap-and-Trade for the time being and focusing on bills that are still alive. That doesn’t mean the Governor’s carbon pricing crusade is lost. Now is an opportune time to take CarbonWa up on its offer to serve as “relief pitcher” for Cap-and-Trade and pivot the fight out of the legislature and onto more favorable turf. In the immortal words of Otto von Bismarck, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”. Governor Inslee can still craft a win, it just might not be the win he originally planned.