Meeting with Nicole Macri D-43 on 2/11/17

Earlier this month I met with Nicole Macri, who was recently elected to represent my district in the Washington State House of Representatives. I figured out that I moved to the district one day before she was sworn into office last January, making me one of her (many) old-school constituents.

We met at Victrola cafe on 15th Ave at the top of Capitol Hill to discuss carbon tax legislation making its way through the House and Senate. I had gone through the Washington Legislature website to read about carbon tax bills currently being discussed and had made myself familiar with SB 5127/HB 1555 – the carbon plan advanced by the governor. My comments to Rep. Macri were chiefly concerned with this bill. However, it turned out that Macri had also co-sponsored an alternative carbon tax measure: HB 1646/SB 5509.

This bill is supported by the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy and imposes a revenue-positive carbon tax with the proceeds going to payments and infrastructure in low-income communities, environmental protections and preservation in forests and waterways, support for labor unions, and transportation improvements. On the other hand SB 5127 (the governor’s plan) directs approximately half of the revenue raised to the state education trust fund. The rest of the revenue is directed to environmental protections, to clean energy, weatherization and transportation investments, to job training and competitiveness programs, and to relieve the impact of the tax on the very low-income, blind and disabled. The Governor’s plan has roughly the same pricing mechanism as I-732: $25 per ton rising 3.5% per year plus inflation. This is a higher starting price than the Alliance-backed  which sets a price at $15 per ton and rises 7% per year.

carbontaxs

My chief concern with the governor’s bill is in the very limited offset provided for low-income people. Carbon taxes, like all excise taxes, are inherently regressive. Our state already has the most regressive tax system in the country, a fact which I find disgraceful, and adding a carbon tax to this system without other offsets of tax reform worsens this regressivity. I let Macri know that this is my chief concern with SB 5127/BH 1555. I suggested that any carbon-tax law include the Working Families Tax Rebate – an EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit) match for Washington state taxpayers that was created legally in 2008 but has never been funded. This would more than offset the new cost of the carbon tax imposed on low-income households and put cash in their pocket which could be used for energy-saving retrofits, investments in more efficient transportation options, or however else they saw fit.

To their credit, the bill supported by the Alliance and co-sponsored by Macri does include a tax grant to low-income individuals based on family size, similar to the Working Families Tax Rebate. I was not aware of this at the time of our meeting.

Representative Macri thanked me for my feedback. She’s joined the House Environment Committee because environmental issues are very important to her constituents, but admits that it is not yet her area of expertise. She emphasized to me how important it is for representatives to hear from their constituents, especially as negotiations about budgeting can be “squishy”. Representatives need to know when they have the backing to hold a hard line on, for instance, tax regressivity.

Macri also discussed other funding mechanisms for addressing our policy and revenue goals. She noted how a capital gains tax would provide a progressive funding source for schools while taking some of the funding burden off a carbon tax. Republicans are going to fight both anyhow, and with tax-issues at a critical point due to the lingering McCleary decision perhaps it makes sense to fight them on both fronts.

The experience overall was positive, easy, and encouraging. I was left with the impression that state representatives can’t be experts on every issue and have very limited time to address the many bills presented during the legislative session. Constructive conversations with well-informed and passionate constituents can be influential, especially if they are helpful to the representative by making key issues clear, providing succinct, factual information, or providing backing from a vocal and respected organization.

macri-card

 

 

When will it change?

Through class and recent readings I’ve done, I’ve become exceedingly interested in the effects large fossil fuel companies are having in shaping climate policy and climate change itself. In my last post, I discussed some of the largest carbon emitters in the world, and their massive contributions to our changing climate. Well what many assumed to be true about these companies is apparently true, and at least some people are upset; the SEC and a number of states Attorney Generals have recently launched an investigation into ExxonMobil and whether they deliberately mislead investors as to the effects they were having on climate change. A similar lawsuit could be in the works for oil giant Shell. A recently rediscovered 1991 short film produced by Shell and made for students and other public forums warned of the disastrous effects of increasing global temperatures, how our current energy system was unsustainable, and how carbon emissions were and are the biggest contributor to climate change. As we all know however, both Exxon and Shell have invested billions of dollars into fossil fuel exploration and capture, as well as millions into lobby groups such as the (thoughtfully named) American Petroleum Institute, Global Climate Coalition, and American Legislative Council; all of which seek to undermine policies promoting carbon regulation and taxes, while also working to sway public opinion against the facts of climate science. It is a sad reality that emphasizes short term investor goals and ignores long term global impacts. Thankfully, progressive states and government entities are beginning to take action, which could potentially call to account the actions of these companies, and the disconnect between the climate science they speak of in private and the climate denial they project to investors and the public. 

It is also worth mentioning that not all energy giants are soulless in their approach to business. In researching some of the largest energy companies, I was lightened by the example of Statoil, a Norwegian multinational energy company (the 11th largest oil and gas company in the world by profit according to Forbes). Statoil has taken the unusual approach of fully embracing climate change and their role in the crisis. Since 1996 they have invested heavily in reducing their CO2 output and have developed technologies that significantly limit their footprint as compared to other oil and gas companies. For over 20 years Statoil has been refining technology used to separate CO2 from their oil and gas extracts, and then sequestering that CO2 in deep subterranean formations where it will not leak into the atmosphere. No other oil and gas company in the world has adopted such a progressive model, or implemented this type of technology at any sort of impactful scale. Statoil has been so successful that they have been recognized as not only the most sustainable oil and gas company in the world, but the 4th most sustainable company in the world regardless of industry by the Carbon Disclosure Project. Statoil has also promoted and lobbied for increased carbon taxes and funding for climate research and climate impact mitigations. 

So there are both sides of the coin. Many of the American driven, solely profit driven companies want to take a back seat to climate change and ride out the fossil fuel glut as long as possible. But Statoil is a great example of how accepting climate change, acknowledging ones role in that change, and in doing so pursuing policy and technology to mitigate those impacts, can still result in huge profits, and maybe more importantly a respectable public image. Sadly, it may take several multi-billion dollar lawsuits for other industry players to come around.

A Change is Gonna Come

All good things must come to an end. Especially good neighborhoods. Look at some of the neighborhoods in New York City. Greenwich Village was known for its bohemian culture from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth. Jackson Pollack and Bob Dylan lived there, pre-fame. The East Village was known for punks like The Ramones and artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat. Williamsburg, Brooklyn was the center of cool when I was living in New York. Even then, it was becoming commercialized and taken over by investment bankers.

But before the I-bankers come, it’s the artists who do the displacement. The East Village was originally home to poor Russians and Ukrainians. Williamsburg was mainly Hasidic Jews and Puerto Ricans. It seems the cycle is that neighborhoods start poor, artist and musicians move in, it becomes hip, the rich move in, it becomes expensive and full of Duane Reades, then everyone who made it hip moves somewhere else. You can see the same trend playing out in Seattle, in Ballard, and more so Capitol Hill. Replace investment bankers with Amazonians.

It also seems that the speed at which neighborhoods change is accelerating. Greenwich Village was cool at least beginning from the 1850’s, when the Hudson River School painters opened shop there, to nearly the end of the twentieth century. The gentrification of Williamsburg took place on a much shorter timeline. Beginning in the mid-1990s, it probably reached peak-hipster in the early to mid 2000’s. Today, signifying full maturity, it has a Whole Foods.

Maybe the main culprit for the acceleration of changing neighborhoods is the ease with which people move around the country. For $54 a promising young coder can take a Greyhound from Detroit to New York City. In cities that have geographical constraints—like Seattle, San Francisco, or NYC—the effects of in-migration are magnified.

When I was an undergrad, I was part of a group that biked across the country to raise money and awareness for people with disabilities. I learned that there are people in need all over the country—and, therefore, jobs to be had. The Federal Government could, for example, spend to create jobs that service the disabled in West Texas. Or to hire more teachers in small town schools. Or to open rural health clinics. This sort of spending would allow people to live in smaller towns across the country. The people would be healthier and the children smarter. The towns would flourish. And maybe eventually they’d open a Duane Reade in Muleshoe, TX, rather than on the corner of 10th and Pike.

Incentivizing Borrowers

I’m shopping for trucks and auto loans. Specifically, I’m looking for a 2004 Toyota Tacoma. I’m buying a 13 year old truck for multiple reasons. Firstly, after 2004, the body size of Toyota Tacomas got much larger – larger than I need and too large to park on Capitol Hill where I live. Secondly, buying a used vehicle is important to me from an environmental standpoint. I like knowing that if I’m going to be a car owner, at least I’m not going to increase the number of cars already in existence. By purchasing a used vehicle instead of a new one, I’m taking on less financial risk myself, while also reducing the environmental impact of new vehicle manufacturing.

bank-loan-approved

Despite my effort to be both financially and environmentally responsible, the interest rate on my auto loan will be nearly double what it would be if I were to purchase a brand new car. I understand the rationale that older cars are more likely to have problems and thus, be worth less as collateral. Yes, banks exist like any business to make money. But they also function to help people make big purchases and work toward financial goals. By charging a higher interest rate for an older vehicle, banks are incentivising higher risk borrowers.

If the lending functions of a bank operated more like a micro-lender, the community and environmental benefit might be far greater. Micro lenders make smaller loans to borrowers who typically have very little credit history. These loans typically have much lower default rates while offering a sustainable step toward borrower goals.

Where design and development meet intent….

Following up on my previous post regarding SLU development and the individuals behind what’s taking place, I got to thinking and reading a bit about architectural and development theory.   One thought stood out to me about the idea that “form follows function”, a well-known principle associated with modernist architecture and industrial design.  The principle is that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose.  The man who coined this phrase, architect Louis Sullivan eventually developed the shape of a tall steel skyscraper in late 19th Century Chicago at the very moment when technology, taste and economic forces converged and made it necessary to drop the established styles of the past.  While most university courses on architecture theory may often spend just as much time discussing philosophy and cultural studies as they will on buildings, we as a city in my opinion are now at a point in our city’s history where both developer intent and design functionality must come together for the betterment of our citizens.  Technology and taste are most definitely converging at this point in time here in Seattle where the act of thinking, discussing, and developing real estate and the futuristic products our tenants create shape not only our city but the entire world.

Take for example Tesla, which will begin selling and installing its new home solar roofs later this year.  Unveiling its solar roof product in late October, about a month before the company acquired SolarCity in a deal worth $2.1 billion, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said it looks “quite promising” that Tesla’s solar roof could actually be CHEAPER than a normal roof when factoring in the price of labor.  Clearly his vision and intent here is to be both environmentally conscious, while attempting to not sacrifice product quality and cost.  It remains to be seen however as to whether or not this product actually makes a profit for Tesla and truly provides a savings to the consumer, or whether they just announced another way to lose money.

solar-roof

Take this philosophy to the field of development, where The Living Building Challenge gives the possibility of environmentally sound development, but fails at this point in time to deliver the risk/reward parameters to a developer to make a project like this pencil out.  The relation of “green” theory and sustainable design to the practice of building, and more importantly, the words and intent of developers, creators and environmentalists in this case barely makes reasonable sense….yet.  It would take contractors, architects and engineers to donate a good portion of their time and effort to make a Living Building of considerable size work, without more than double the 15% bonus FAR you receive in the city of Seattle to attempt such a project.  If the city’s intent is to reduce our carbon footprint and be one of the greenest cities in the country, something has to give and compromises need to be made.  The LBC which describes itself as a “philosophy, advocacy platform, and certification program” forces developers to push material and labor requirements to the edge while aiming to meet a philosophy of sustainable design that no doubt many developers share.  In the end, our buildings are of a place and of a culture, and of a design intent which while positive, can only be met in form when reasonable minds meet somewhere in the middle for the betterment of our city’s health and our rapid growth.

US Waste Factory, Colorado Springs, CO

Meal time at the US Air Force Academy’s Mitchell Hall is a sight to behold. 400 tables served in less than 5 minutes, family style and with more than enough food to go around. A sea of 4000 cadets, in and out in less than 30 minutes: a gracefully-choreographed tradition and marvel of efficiency. For an outsider, it is a fascinating and remarkable system – until it’s time to clear the tables.

mitchesI think it’d be conservative to estimate that nearly as much is thrown away as is eaten – every meal, three times a day, seven days a week, 46 weeks a year. Leftovers, table scraps, drinks, even all condiments, are tossed in the trash during the momentously efficient clean-up drill. In many ways, it makes perfect sense: the hardly-touched jar of salsa is no longer sanitary and the mostly-full milk carton has been sitting out for nearly 45 minutes. What could be done with 1000 leftover dinner rolls and 800 chicken breasts, anyway? There is no recycling for bottles or jars, no compost for food scraps – only trash for food and packaging alike. Incredibly efficient. And an incredible waste.

How difficult would it be to institute recycling capabilities? On the scale that Mitchell Hall produces recyclable materials, it’s highly likely that such a program could run a profit. Compost? A straightforward on-site lifecycle with benefits ranging from landscaping fertilizer to reduced waste transportation costs. There are so many options to reduce waste – to offer none is not only irresponsible, but sets a lasting precedent for our nation’s developing leaders.

I can’t help but lament how the Armed Force community in general tends to be overtly wasteful. Everything is budget-driven, and our priorities are elsewhere: there is simply little effort to minimize use of resources or ecological impact. This case is merely one small example, but one that could be so easily mitigated.

Executive Order 13693, issued in March 2015, gave the DOD (Department of Defense) a nudge in the right direction. The order calls for specified increases in renewable energy use and waste reduction, among other initiatives [1]. Thus far, no strides have been made to develop strategy or policy to meet the requirements [2]. Other federal initiatives, such as the 2005 Energy Policy Act and publications of the EPA and Department of Energy, carry similar intent – but their influence is limited to their enforcement.

What can you do? Call your federal legislators (find your Representative or Senator) and call-now-2tell them about your concerns. Let them know that you are dissatisfied with the progress we’ve made, that renewable energy and recycling/composting infrastructure are important to growth, and that federal agencies must be held to established standards. Whether you’re motivated by lunch at the Academy or other federal shortcomings isn’t important – in the end it is our responsibility to hold our government accountable for what we believe to be right.

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References:
[1] “EO 13693,” FedCenter.gov. 18 August 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.fedcenter.gov/programs/eo13693/. [Accessed 28 February 2017].
[2] Lepore, Brain. “DOD Efforts Regarding Net Zero Goals,” US Government Accountability Office. 12 January 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-153R. [Accessed 28 February 2017].

Passing Over Cities

Heavy traffic during rush hour is generally attributed to commuters traveling to and from the city. We lose sight of the other things contributing to this traffic, such as people traveling from one side of the city to the other, completely bypassing the city. For example, if a person lived in Shoreline and needed to get to work in Tacoma, they would have no other choice but to sit through the traffic going through downtown Seattle. Additionally, truckers are forced to waste hours of valuable time sitting in city traffic multiple times each day. Everyone can agree that sitting in traffic is frustrating, and doubly frustrating when you’re trying to completely bypass the area causing the traffic (i.e. downtown Seattle).  Having been on multiple road trips to and from California, I can speak from personal experience when saying we need a better way for commuters to avoid the traffic caused by major cities.

The population of greater Seattle is growing. With more people comes more traffic. Our efforts to reduce traffic seem to be negligible; even with the construction of the light rail, we are facing a future of even worse traffic conditions. If we were able to eliminate all the cars on the road that were trying to bypass the city, this would eliminate a portion of the traffic. My idea is this: build an overpass, or a tunnel, that allows traffic to pass over the city. In a way, these lanes would be like super express lanes. The addition of these lanes will help reduce traffic, allow goods to reach their destination faster, and reduce the amount of CO2 emitted due to idled traffic.

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Seattle Traffic, Seattle Times

A preliminary design for these super express lanes would be four lanes wide, with two lanes going in each direction. Because the main idea for these would be to pass cities, the speed limit would be higher than normal due to the lack of merging/exiting traffic. Large cities would benefit from this by reducing their carbon footprint and by decreasing the average time spent in traffic during rush hour.

With a growing population, it’s safe to assume Seattle will need to expand sometime in the near future. An overpass that completely bypasses the city also allows for high density areas outside of the city to be more connected. It is for these ideas that creating a way to bypass main cities is necessary.