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New Poll Shows Statewide Support for Coal Terminal, Big Opposition to Gas Tax Increase

Richards Bay Coal Terminal in South Africa.

Richards Bay Coal Terminal in South Africa.

OLYMPIA, Dec. 16.—A new poll shows a majority of voters statewide favor a coal terminal proposed for Longview, two-thirds oppose a gas-tax increase, and public confidence in the economy is on the decline.

But maybe the most striking thing about the survey, released Friday by Gallatin Public Affairs and GS Strategy Group, is that for all the agitation over the last year for pro-environmental “progressive” policies, primarily from the greater Seattle area, the rest of the state just isn’t on the same page. The broad-ranging survey shows support statewide for the Millennium project at the Port of Longview at 56-34. The coal terminal, one of two major facilities proposed for the state of Washington, has been the focus of a concerted environmental protest that seems to have overshadowed the feelings of the electorate as a whole.

Another result spells trouble for the transportation package now being negotiated in the back rooms at the statehouse. Washington voters said they oppose a gas-tax hike of 11 cents a gallon, 66-31, and 52.3 percent say they oppose it “strongly.”  The poll also shows optimism about the economy is on the wane – 35.8 percent this year said they thought it would “get better,” versus 46 percent a year ago.

The November poll of 400 likely voters statewide is the third in a series commissioned by the public affairs firm, and aims to measure shifts in public opinion over time. It was supplemented by a second sampling of 274 voters in Eastern Washington, in the Spokane and Tri-Cities media markets. The separate Eastern Washington polling produced results that probably would surprise no one familiar with the politics of the state – results east of the Cascades skewed a bit more conservative than the statewide numbers.

Pollster Greg Strimple of Boise-based GS Strategy Group said the coal question was particularly revealing. The uproar over the coal terminals that has been orchestrated by environmental groups does not appear to be an accurate measure of public opinion, he said. “The coal ports may be anathema to the environmental community, but there is generally broad support among the electorate. If you listen to the environmental community, you would never believe that is true.”

Public Prefers Jobs

Gallatin Public Affairs, it should be noted, represents the Millennium project – hence the poll asked about the Longview project and not about the similar Gateway Pacific Terminal proposed for Cherry Point near Bellingham. The two port projects have become the focal point for protests by environmental groups, and the green-minded administration of Gov. Jay Inslee appears to be taking their side, by requiring an environmental impact statement for Cherry Point that is unprecedented in its scope. But the poll demonstrates an interesting phenomenon.

On some questions regarding environmental issues, voters tended to go green. For instance, 64.8 percent said they are concerned about the safety of shipping oil and coal by rail – a concern that has been heightened by the Quebec disaster last summer. Some 75.2 percent said they are concerned about the safety of energy pipelines. But when it came to the coal port, a majority statewide said they favored “using the old industrial site located on the Columbia River in Longview as a coal export terminal,” and the split was even higher in Eastern Washington, 63-24.

Other questions help put the result in perspective. Some 53.6 percent of voters said they were highly concerned about protecting the environment, but when asked to choose between creating jobs and protecting the environment, voters favored jobs 51-37.

It also doesn’t appear that climate change is a big concern – at least when questions avoid using the phrase. This week’s big clash at the statehouse is over a proposal from Gov. Jay Inslee for a cap-and-trade policy that would limit greenhouse-gas emissions from industry. A question noted that Inslee has signed a pact with Oregon, California and British Columbia promising to enact cap-and-trade legislation “to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.” Cap-and-trade was favored 45-40 – not a decisive majority.

Trouble for Gas Tax

The gas-tax question underscores a point made by House Republicans and members of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus – that whatever opinion leaders might think about a transportation package, it will not be easy winning public support. The 66.4 percent opposition statewide to a gas-tax increase is considerably higher in Eastern Washington, where opposition ran 78-20. A final proposal is still a long way off, but the result suggests that the package will have to be crafted to achieve greater public support if it is to stick. Republicans argue that big reforms in transportation policy are needed in order to improve public confidence, because the public inevitably will have a say, either in the form of a legislative referendum or a rollback initiative. The survey result also supports a point made by business-community leaders – that public support is so iffy that it will take a political campaign to put it over. Advocates say the business community is willing to finance a campaign for a tax that the Legislature has already passed, but it is unenthusiastic about a campaign to promote a legislative referendum. When the Legislature has failed to offer a firm endorsement, such campaigns have failed in the past.

King County Too Powerful

The answer to one question might not bring many gasps. Is King County too powerful? Voters said yes 69-27. Inasmuch as the population split in the state is roughly the same, there might not be much surprise about that. The state’s most populous county has 27 percent of the population.

But the more interesting part shows up in the crosstabs. Even King County agreed with that statement – 56.9 percent said yes. In the rest of the state, it was 75 percent. In Eastern Washington, it was 81 percent.

Now here’s the funniest part. The one place where voters thought the worst of King County was immediately to the south – Pierce County. There a whopping 88.6 percent of voters agreed. “Its little brother south of Seattle definitely feels like it is being pushed around,” Strimple said.

And the way he puts it all together is this. “I see Seattle and the environmental community as really dictating policies that are anathema to the state as a whole. It is a practical concern to the state as a whole and in particular the business community of Eastern Washington.”

Other Findings

The poll contained other questions of general interest:

— Voter outlook is rather evenly split. Some 31 percent identified themselves as liberal, 31 percent as moderate and 33 percent as conservative.

— Partisan affliation skews toward the D side, however. Some 35 percent say they are Democrats, 24 percent Republican and 36 percent independent.

— If legislative elections were held today, 38 percent say they would vote for the Democrat, 33 percent Republican and 29 percent undecided.

— On the performance of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, 52 percent say they have a favorable opinion, 23 percent unfavorable, 20 percent have no opinion — and 3.6 percent have never heard of the fellow.

— An overwhelming majority say free trade is important to the Washington economy, 92-4.

— On a question regarding Initiative 937, the measure that requires utilities to purchase a steadily increasing share of power from “renewable” sources – defined as wind and solar but not hydropower – voters said they would favor including hydropower in the definition, 63-31.

— Voters were evenly split on the idea of creating a state bank to handle deposits from marijuana merchants, a problem for commercial banks because of federal restrictions. Result was 45-45.

— An overwhelming majority said they would oppose a ballot measure imposing a $15 minimum wage statewide, 57-42.

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