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.
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.