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Suspicious Lawmakers Prepare Bill to Prevent Governor From Imposing Low-Carbon Fuel Standards

State Rep. Shelley Short, R-Addy, and J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, the House Minority Floor Leader.

State Rep. Shelley Short, R-Addy, and J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, the House Minority Floor Leader.

OLYMPIA, Jan. 15.—Continued suspicions about Gov. Jay Inslee’s plans regarding low-carbon fuel standards are prompting two House Republicans to attempt a preemptive move – a bill that would eliminate the green-minded governor’s ability to impose the rule without a vote of the Legislature.

The bill, prime-sponsored by state Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, with House Minority Floor Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, would require the Legislature to take a vote before low-carbon fuel standards could be imposed. It would essentially eliminate any authority the governor might have to impose the rule on his own. At a time when the Legislature is considering an 11.5-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax, the fuel standards could add a dollar to the price of gasoline and diesel fuel.

Of course, the governor could spare lawmakers the trouble of passing a bill, Wilcox said – by promising he won’t do it. Inslee had a chance to do that in his State of the State address Tuesday but remained silent, further arousing doubt in the Legislature. “He has been trying to dodge an answer for the last week or so,” Wilcox said. “He should just tell us. It is a big deal for people who have to feed their families.”

While the chances for a minority-party bill that underscores deep mistrust about the governor’s intentions might be problematic in a Democrat-controlled House, the measure is a demonstration of the uneasy feeling many lawmakers have at the moment. Low-carbon fuel standards, a state mandate that requires oil refiners to blend motor fuel with an advanced low-carbon form of ethanol, are one of the big ideas being touted in the climate-change arena of late. Only California has imposed the rule so far, and it has run into a heap of problems – in particular the fact that low-carbon ethanol is largely unavailable. When the Golden State imposes stiff new standards in 2015, the oil industry warns of supply disruptions, refinery closures and big price increases. Consultants to a Washington-state climate task force last year estimated that the standards in this state would add between 93 cents and $1.17 to the cost of a gallon of fuel.

Inslee’s Intentions the Question

The Department of Ecology maintains that it already has authority to impose low-carbon fuel standards on this state under the Clean Air Act, but says it would take an executive order from Inslee for regulators to embark on such a significant change. Inslee hasn’t tipped his hand, and his office is not commenting on the bill. But the governor certainly has given lawmakers plenty of reason to be concerned, Short said. Last October Inslee signed an agreement with California, Oregon and British Columbia in which he promised to enact low-carbon fuel standards, though he did not say how he planned to do it.  Inslee has been vowing to take some sort of action to reduce the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions, yet it seems clear that nothing will come from the Legislature anytime soon — a Climate Legislative and Executive Workgroup formed at Inslee’s urging failed to reach consensus last month. On the subject of climate change, Inslee declared in Tuesday’s speech that something will come from his administration. “Rest assured, we will move forward,” he promised.

The suspicions go deeper than that, said Short, the House Republican representative on the climate workgroup. Last month, as the panel met privately with Inslee, he called for further economic study on other proposals, but not that one. “We’ve just been hearing hints all over the place,” she said. “I was very disappointed [in the State of the State Address]. I was very interested in hearing what he had to say.”

The bill that will be filed by Short and Wilcox is still being drafted by the Code Reviser’s Office and has not yet been assigned a bill number. Wilcox said it will include language establishing that the Legislature does not believe the Department of Ecology can impose low-carbon fuel standards on its own, and that the bill is being offered to settle any remaining doubt. Such language would preempt an obvious legal argument – that if the bill is introduced and fails, the Legislature is acknowledging that the governor has the legal authority to issue an order giving Ecology the go-ahead.

“We’re just saying that if we are going to discuss this kind of policy, it ought to be done in the legislative arena,” Short said. “The public ought to comment fully, and we ought to have good, robust debate and analysis.”

Complicates Gas-Tax Debate

House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, and Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina.

House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, and Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina.

Inslee’s silence on the subject poses a real problem for the current campaign to increase the gas tax, members of the House Republican Caucus and the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference. Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, noted that the same point has been made by Democratic transportation chairs Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, in the Senate, and Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, in the House. Republican Senate Transportation Chairman Curtis King took it a step further Monday by issuing a press release urging the governor to clarify his position during his State of the State address.

“The governor needs to be very clear about his intentions, on where he is going to go on climate change,” Tom said. “Sen. King has been very clear about it, Sen. Eide has been very clear about that, Rep. Clibborn has been very clear on that – so it is not a partisan issue.

“To think that an action that might add up to an additional dollar has no consequences just makes no sense. It makes no sense to the public and it certainly doesn’t make sense in Olympia, and I think it adds a huge cloud if we are going to move forward.”

Added House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, “There has been no economic study of this, and my biggest concern, as well as for my colleagues, is what is going to happen to happen to the middle-class and working-class families of Washington state when ultimately they have to pay for all of this stuff.”

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