Washington Carbon Tax

After weeks of emailing senators and house representatives I had little to show for it. I was unable to get a commitment for a meeting time with anyone, the senators, representatives or even with their assistance’s. I was disgruntled and assumed my mission would be like trying to schedule a meeting with someone at the DMV. This first impression was shattered as soon as I got to Olympia. Not only did I not even need to use my GPS to drive strait to the capital complex but once I was there everyone was extremely nice and helpful. I was expecting to be faced with a stuffy bureaucratic wall of tired employees who dealt with lobbyists all day. Instead, within minutes I was directed from one happy front desk to the next until I was happily given the exact location of the senator’s office in whom I was looking for. I felt a bit out of place and nervous to just walk into the Senators office unannounced but when I got there the closed-door had a sign that said please come in, so I did. Unfortunately, the senator was not in that day, but his assistant was more than receptive to my proposal to chat about a carbon tax in Washington. As it turned out I had just walked into one the most conservative senate offices in Olympia. Although I knew Phil Fortunato was a republican, I didn’t realize he could be described as the most conservative seat on the senate. It was refreshing to see his assistant Mathew was a counter balance to the senator’s conservatism. Mathew was self-described as a middle ground man, like myself, who made no commitment to either party.

Only days before my trip to Olympia the senate bill 6203, for the carbon tax, lost the majority rule and was thrown out. This bill proposed a carbon tax with the revenues going towards sustainable technologies. I asked how the senator voted on this bill and for them it was a no brainer. Phil’s perception was that his vote was to represent the people of the district who elected him, which was the 31st district, including rural areas such as Enumclaw, and Buckley. SB-6203, as presented, adversely effected people in rural areas much greater than in urban areas. People in rural areas on average commute much longer distances to work and have higher automobile expenses which the carbon tax would exacerbate. In addition, there was a recent property tax and vehicle licensing fee increase for Seattle Department of Transportation projects this increase was fresh on the minds of rural residents who didn’t believe they would ever see benefits from these projects. Consequently, this district was hyper sensitive to any proposal that might increase their transportation costs. I presented the idea of modifying the bill to a form closer to I-732 where the bill could be revenue neutral for businesses and also revenue neutral for residents by reducing property taxes. This would provide an incentive to rural residents with out punishing them for being rural. Mathew agreed that the revenue neutral approach was likely the best way to go in finding success for the bill. He noted another factor leading to the bills demise in rural opinion was its unequal tax on power, since Seattle power is mainly generated by hydroelectric damns and many rural areas use coal, the rural population was again at risk to pay more for the tax. By nature, the bill targets high carbon users intentionally which happens to include rural populations. I brought up the point that a carbon tax could be beneficial for rural populations in the long run as it would stress them to progress towards using alternative lower carbon modes of transportation. This initial stress would create resilience in the event of another shock to oil prices. Mathew considered this point very valid for people of our generation however he noted there is a large population that is made up of older residents who either are retired or who will be retired soon, and they simply do not care to plan to that extent as the majority of their commuting days and therefore risk to oil price shocks was limited.

When asked what else might help a future carbon tax be successful, Mathew expressed the need for some sort of kick back that could be offered to people. For example, instead of the tax revenues going to green technologies, people may be more receptive to the bill if the revenues were put aside in a manner in which they could be earned back. He suggested that the revenues go into a grant and be set aside to then be used to subsidize any purchase homeowners made to lower their carbon foot print. This way it would be much more feasible for residents to improve their state of carbon usage and would empower them to have good reason to do so, whether their motives were for the environment or for their own financial wellbeing.

At the end of the day we are quickly running out of time to have an effect with climate change. Mathew, having taken college courses in energy physics and environmental engineering understood the urgency. I inquired about what frameworks need to change or where most prohibiting to the success of a carbon tax. The biggest issue Mathew saw with the Carbon bill, and for the most part any bill, was that they were drafted practically in isolation. He couldn’t believe how often bills would be drafted without ever leaving a single office. Its an incredibly counterproductive way to get things done, he gestured to a document on the table a few hundred pages long, a bill like this he said has probably been in drafting for the last year and now that its finished we go through it find all the things we can’t agree with and vote against it. Then they revise and try to get it passed the next year. That hole process could be so much more effective if the parties learned to work together on issues from the get go. Unfortunately, that is not the case and instead the parties wait until they hold the majority of the seats and then try to shove every bill through while they can.  Mathew admitted bills do sometimes earn the cooperation between parties but only when there is extreme public pressure to do so.

Mathew and I continued to chat for several minutes about various topics, how he came to work with the senator, and much more, with no rush. On my way out, he encouraged me to come back anytime and I immediately looked forward to it.Biz Card Fortunato.JPG

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