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Initiative ballot title approved: a pollution fee, not a carbon tax

Last week, a Thurston County Superior Court judge approved the final ballot title for Washington’s newest carbon pricing initiative. The initiative, I-1631, was filed just one day after Gov. Inslee’s carbon tax bill stalled in the legislature.

Language from the approved ballot title makes no mention of a carbon tax, and instead refers to the pricing system as a “pollution fee.”

Ballot Title:

This measure would charge pollution fees on sources of greenhouse gas pollutants and use the revenue to reduce pollution, promote clean energy, and address climate impacts, under oversight of a public board.

According to this analysis from Carbon Washington, calling this a “pollution fee” has the “political benefit of avoiding the “t” word,” and limits revenue use to carbon and pollution issues rather than broader issues like rural economic development which was included in the legislature’s carbon tax bill.

This differs from Carbon Washington’s 2016 initiative that both singled out carbon, rather than pollutants in general, and explicitly included the term “carbon emission tax” in its ballot title:

“This measure was designed to impose a carbon emission tax on certain fossil fuels and fossil-fuel-generated electricity, reduce the sales tax by one percentage point, increase a low-income exemption, and reduce certain manufacturing taxes.”

SB 6203, which made it out of two committees during session, also clearly stated that the goal of the bill was to create a carbon tax.

The full text of I-1631 makes sure to avoid the term “tax,” however, should a court determine that the pollution fee is indeed a tax, it will have no impact on the initiative. Section 20 states:

“The people find and determine that the pollution fee imposed in this chapter is not a tax in light of the purposes, benefits, and use of the fee. Nevertheless, if a court of final jurisdiction determines that the pollution fee imposed in this chapter is a tax, then that tax shall be deemed authorized, imposed, and exempt from the provisions of RCW 82.32.805 and 82.32.808.”