If Tuesday’s election losses for the Democratic Party in Washington state were a setback for Gov. Jay Inslee’s first-term environmental agenda, he wasn’t letting on during his first public post-election remarks at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
Inslee prefaced his meeting with the state’s media outlets with a keynote address to a renewable energy conference in SeaTac, saying Washington has reached a “Grand Coulee” moment for the future of energy policy.
Just as the state revolutionized its economy with the development of hydropower and the building of Grand Coulee Dam during the Great Depression, Inslee said he believes a similar opportunity lies in developing new sources of renewable energy.
“We need to look at energy with the same kind of ambition,” Inslee said at the conference. “It is up to us to decide if this is our Grand Coulee moment. We’ve got to stop quibbling over our policy differences and start finding a solution. As governor, I’ve been all in on this since day one.”
After Tuesday night, he will have to deal with a newly emboldened Republican Party that rode a wave of national momentum to retaining control of the state Senate, and picking up seats in the House.
Republican leaders are saying the gains they made on Election Day are a message from voters to oppose Inslee’s environmental agenda as hurting low-income residents because of its potential increase in the costs of fuel — although Inslee’s office disputes those projections — and creating burdensome layers of regulations that will hamper future economic growth. They’ve pitched other means of addressing carbon emissions.
Republicans scored one of their most significant electoral victories in years Tuesday night, sweeping three key Senate districts against Democrats determined to knock off Republican incumbents — and protecting Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who’s caucused with Republicans for the last two years. They now have their first outright majority in the Senate in 10 years.
“That agenda’s probably not going to be driving the Legislature in 2015, and I think the voters want that,” Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup and chair of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, told the News Tribune of Tacoma on Tuesday night.
In a time-honored tradition both parties adhere to, Inslee responded Wednesday with his own take of the election returns. Despite the losses, Inslee emphasized that he’s facing the same legislative landscape he was before Tuesday — a Democrat-controlled House, and a Republican-controlled Senate.
“There were some things that were not particularly helpful for Democrats,” Inslee said. “The way to fairly score this was a status quo election.”
Inslee turned back to the 2012 election in saying voters support policies aimed at curbing carbon emissions, and events such as the severe wildfires last summer have added more supporters to his cause.
“People in this state are seeing it with their own eyes,” Inslee said. “People are now experiencing it.”
He said Republicans can’t cause the state to fail to meet its renewable energy goals, codified through a 2006 voter initiative, although they will be just as quick to point out that the definition of renewable energy does not include hydropower. That’s forcing utilities to buy more expensive renewable energy, and sending hydropower elsewhere on the grid.
At the conference, Inslee charted out a series of policy proposals he will support relating to creating incentives for renewable energy producers in Washington state, but stopped short of embracing any of the more controversial, market-driven mechanisms for cutting carbon emissions, which includes a low-carbon fuels standard, a cap-and trade program or a carbon tax.
A task force he set up earlier this year is due to provide recommendations on carbon emissions Nov. 17, and Inslee said he will wait until those recommendations are out until he offers his own to the Legislature.
Inslee said using state policies to increase use of electric vehicles will be a top priority for him in the 2015 legislative session, which includes extending a sales tax exemption for purchasing electric vehicles beyond its July 2015 sunset date.
He said it will also require giving electric vehicles access to HOV lanes on state highways, and more charging stations available along major thoroughfares. Newly constructed buildings have to have the capability of hosting high-speed electronic car charging stations. Tax breaks for solar energy production and manufacturers will have to continue, although Inslee said new approaches to get larger projects built are needed.
But Inslee emphasized the need for a low-carbon fuels standard, cap-and-trade program or carbon tax as necessary to truly accomplish his climate objectives.
“We’re going to need more than these individuals programs,” Inslee said.
And as for working with Republican legislators overall, Inslee said the state Supreme Court ruling on McCleary will compel Democrats and Republicans alike to work together.
“All of the legislators are in the same soup,” Inslee said.