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Q&A: Sen. Steve Hobbs talks about the issues animating his run for Lt. Governor

As Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Steve Hobbs is a key player in the Legislature. He’s been a prominent voice for a carbon pricing system and has introduced an expansive transportation and environmental plan, called Forward Washington, to invest in infrastructure and green technology projects throughout the state.

Sen. Hobbs has entered the race to replace retiring Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib in the fall. After running four years ago and placing fourth in the primary, Sen. Hobbs is trying again in the belief that he has the leadership skills this moment requires.

Michael Goldberg: Why are you running for Lt. Governor? What about the office appeals to you?

Sen. Steve Hobbs: I ran four years ago because I wanted to make sure there was strong leadership in that position. It’s not just an office in which you preside over the Senate, though that is a big chunk of the job. It’s also a position in which you have to be ready to lead the state if the Governor is incapacitated or if something horrible happens. During this pandemic, it was very clear to me that we need that kind of strong leadership and someone who has managed in a crisis moment, someone who has been able to work with both sides of the aisle. That is something that I wanted to pursue, and something that caused me to jump in the race this time around.”

MG: Going back to your race four years ago and comparing the political context then with now, what makes you think the result might be different this time around?

SH: If you look at my past race and what I focused on, I focused on the things I just told you about: having strong leadership, being able to take the reins, managing in a crisis. I don’t think people were really thinking about that four years ago, and they certainly are now. Not only are we dealing with the pandemic, but we are going to have to deal with the after effects. The economy is going to slide into a recession and somebody who has managed in a crisis and has been in a political position during a recession – like I was during the last recession – we need that type of person in there. Someone who can not only manage and maneuver in the legislative arena but also be a voice in the executive branch as well.” 

MG: You and Gov. Inslee have had public disagreements on policy in the past. He’s running for re-election. Should you get elected, you might be working with Gov. Inslee closely. What is your plan for bridging some of the policy divides you have with Gov. Inslee?

SH: I see this as a partnership, I really do. For one, we’re going to have to get this economy back on track. Part of that will involve opening markets in Asia. The Lt. Governor’s office has, traditionally, done a lot of trade missions and relationship building with other countries on trade and commerce. I will continue to do that, probably aggressively so. Additionally, since we’re dealing with this pandemic and the after effects, I think having someone who is in the national guard and who has been called up to state emergencies will help us come up with a better plan; with pandemics but also other emergencies that may happen in the future. 

I think we’ll continue to need strong personalities who have good relationships across the aisle, because we’re going to all have to come together to get out of this recession that’s coming. I’ve done that before and I can do it again. I worked closely with Gov. Gregoire when she was in office and with leadership from both parties. Everyone is going to have policy differences; nobody is in lockstep with anybody else. I share the Governor’s concern about climate change and the environment, we just have two different ways of going at it.”

MG: I want to get into what has been an animating issue for you as Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. The Governor has taken a sectoral approach to greening the economy, such as passing a clean electricity bill and energy efficiency requirements for commercial buildings, rather than a broader approach like a carbon tax. His administration has acknowledged that the sector they haven’t successfully addressed is the transportation sector, which is the most prevalent source of emissions. Environmental groups have said this session was a comprehensive failure to act on climate. The most notable piece of legislation – HB 1110, the clean fuels standard – passed in the House but died in the Senate Transportation Committee, of which you are the Chair. I just want to ask flatly what you see as the primary impediment to getting climate legislation passed?

SH: I think what we need to do is take a step back and look at the overall situation we have in Washington state on both the environment and transportation. First of all, Washington state has some serious environmental problems dealing with stormwater. You can look at the Governor’s Orca report which lists stormwater as the number one pollutant in the Puget Sound. The report also indicated that the lack of food for the Orcas – that being salmon – is on the decline. One of the biggest reasons for the decline is these fish barriers that are all around Washington state. We have to fix all of those to the tune of $3.4 billion. And of course, if you want to deal with carbon problems and transportation problems you see the congestion on the highway.

What I believe is, if we’re going to deal with all those problems, there are ways we can approach reducing emissions by having a carbon pricing system rather than a low carbon fuel standard. A carbon pricing system and a low carbon fuel standard both will raise the cost of gasoline. The difference is that in the carbon pricing system the cost of gasoline may go up, but those are revenues generated back into the state that we can put into mitigating stormwater and freeing up thousands of acres of fish habitat by fixing those barriers. At the same time, we’ll have enough money to put into electrification of our roads, more incentives to get people to go into electric vehicles, and money for multimodal transit.” 

MG: I want to stay on this subject because it does seem like you’ve been at the center of this debate within your own party…

SH: Just to make it clear, I am not the only one. The majority of the people in the Senate feel the same way I do, because a lot of this is driven by votes. I know some people say that I’m the sole person stopping it but that’s not the case.”

MG: That is true. Clearly you are not the lone voice for that perspective in the Senate. But in a letter to you, 13 Senate Democrats and 32 House Democrats wrote that they see the passage of a clean fuel standard as a precondition to the passage of a transportation revenue package. Whether as Lt. Governor or as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, again, how do you bridge the gap?

SH: I think a lot of it it’s driven by education. It’s not just a transportation package, it’s an environmental improvement package. Again, you talk to the fish and wildlife biologists, the number one killer to fish is these fish barriers, not carbon. There is no salmon habitat, it’s like it’s all been bottled up. Opening that up solves a huge environmental problem, along with stormwater mitigation. So, I think a little more outreach. Certainly those who understand the issue, tribes and so on, who have signed on for my Forward Washington package understand this; they know it does all of these things.”

MG: Finally, the revenue forecast in June is going to paint a pretty troubling picture. As we look ahead, what is your idea for dealing with the shortfalls?

SH: A lot of it is going to be triage, in terms of how we can help our most vulnerable. There might be a situation like in the Great Recession where we were doing things like putting more money into Apple Health for kids, homelessness, and unemployment. We might go in that direction. It’s hard to say what might happen because if this pandemic goes on, which it probably will, we’ll have to do those things. Now, if have a dip in a month or two where we can recover quickly, then we’re just going to have to kind of hold the line on unnecessary spending and watch for shortfalls in the programs like those I just mentioned. But we’ve got to be careful about creating new programs. We can’t do that in either one of those situations because there is going to be a shortfall, it’s just a matter of how big.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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