NOTE: I took the liberty to have some fun with this post, and structured it into two distinct sections. The first part (Olympia, WA) describes my trip to the Capitol. It reads more as a narrative with little discussion about my research and action on carbon pricing legislation. The second part (Discussing Carbon Pricing with Fitzgibbon’s Office) walks through my talk with Sarah Tucker, legislative assistant to Joe Fitzgibbon. This section more directly addresses the OPTION B Final Assignment prompt for the RE 598 course.
I breathed in deeply, then exhaled. The sun was warm against my skin, and the air felt fresh. I was sitting outside a Starbuck’s across from the International District/Chinatown Station of the Link light rail, reviewing my notes on the history of carbon pricing attempts made in the state of Washington. I checked my watch and realized I would need to be going soon. I was traveling from Seattle, located in the 43rd District, via a Greyhound bus to reach the state capitol in Olympia.
A view of Washington’s Legislative Building while passing on a Greyhound bus. The surrounding buildings are placed to act as a visual pedestal for the free standing masonry dome which rises up from between the Temple of Justice and the Insurance, O’Brien, Cherberg, and Pritchard buildings.
On arrival, I realized that the bus had been delayed. So, as any self-respecting student-on-a-mission would do, I ran as fast as I could, uphill, for five blocks. The last tour of the day was to start at 3 PM from the top of the stairs to the Legislative Building, and I was not going to miss it.
I arrived at the bottom of the 42-stair entrance to the Legislative Building with 5-minutes to spare (I ran track and cross country in high school), and was able to write my name into the visitor book (placing Monrovia, California forevermore into Washington’s state history). The guide, Steven Jones, had previously worked at the Capitol (I believe he was involved in drafting or reviewing budgets, perhaps a role as Budget Counsel), and so he provided a lot of insightful and candid information regarding a recent shift in the Senate majority and on a prominent politician (remind me to Speak more about this during our final “out-of-classroom” class).
After a brief but intense run to the Capitol campus, I stop for a mandatory snapchat selfie with the Legislative Building and Temple of Justice in the background.
During my visit to the Capitol I was able sit in the viewing areas of the Senate and House. I learned that the current Speaker of the House is often not seen on the floor, and is the only person in Washington’s House of Representatives that is allowed to vote from his office. An interesting fact learned about the Senate is that the Lieutenant General, Cyrus Habib, is blind and thus the Senate conducts verbal votes. (A verbal vote takes approximately three minutes to complete. In the House, electronic voting takes only 45 seconds to complete.) The Washington Senate even has a system where Senators press a button at their desk if they wish to speak in lieu of raising their hands. When the button is pressed, the Lieutenant General is able to read from a braille mechanism to determine who is requesting permission to speak.
The Chamber of the House of Representatives. This room is never locked and is always open to the public. The electronic screens seen in the image above display the names of each representative. As they vote, names change from white to either green or red as they vote.
On concluding my tour, I requested to speak further with our guide, retired public servant, Steven Jones. I told him my reason for coming and that I am interesting in understanding why a carbon tax was not passed this year through SB 6203. Steven, said, among other things, that the tax was likely not passed for the reason that most tax bills are not passed: no one wants to adopt a law that will create more taxes. I refuted that this bill was analyzed to be revenue neutral, and that this would likely be a tax cut for many individuals and perhaps even businesses (especially during early years of adoption). Steven still said that regardless of what is projected to happen, any piece of law which either introduces or alters taxation will be hard to pass because the public is always skeptical about anything to do with taxation. He went on to explain that there are many “roadkill” representatives in the legislative branch in Washington (a term used to describe representatives of districts that are split evenly along party lines), and so a vote for a new tax could be the “car” that runs them over. The reality of the difficulties associated with introducing a tax, regardless of its intent or public benefits, was a valuable lesson for me to learn, and one that came up again later in the week.
The Legislative Building taken just prior to the start of the 3 PM tour. The dome on top looks black due to lichen growing in the sandstone (despite routine cleaning and sealing of the exterior). During the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, the dope lifted up and rotated 3 inches. After the earthquake, the Capitol building was reinforced and the base of the dome has been anchored to the building.
Discussing Carbon Pricing with Fitzgibbon’s Office (34th District)
The next day, Tuesday, March 13th 2018, I called in to Representative Joe Fitzgibbon’s office at 2 PM. I had scheduled a phone meeting with a key staff member of his: Sarah Tucker. After striking out on securing a meeting with any of the 43rd District’s representatives or staffers, I had turned to calling and emailing all sponsors of HB 2230 (a carbon pricing bill introduced mid-2017, with Joe Fitzgibbon as it’s primary sponsor). My talk with Sarah was very productive, and lasted 20 minutes.
Response from Sarah Tucker from my day-of check-in regarding our scheduled 2 PM call. Provided to show her email signature as a proxy for a business card of the representative.
I started the conversation by introducing myself, my district and background, and the reason for my call–to discuss the language in both SB 6203 and HB 2230 that I took issue with.
Annual Tax Percent Increase
I started by discussing how both the senate and house versions of the bill proposed annual increases with inflation in addition to a 3.5 percent and 7 percent increase, respectively. I stated that a linear increase did not make sense to me, as growing pains should be most difficult in the beginning, but that there should be an expectation that in five to ten years that companies would be able to more rapidly adjust. Therefore, I proposed that a rate more closely resembling exponential increase should be used for annual pricing increases (capped at a certain amount or growth rate, of course).
Sarah responded by saying that Program Research writes bills, and so they have better working knowledge on how the language works and why a flat percentage increase is used; however, she said that exponential increase would be a tough sell for taxation. Sarah mentioned that voters are hesitant to pass any form of taxation (echoing what Steven had emphasized the day before), but went on to say that Commerce reviews what the tax is levied at and has the ability to make adjustments if goals within the bill are not being met. Therefore, while my concern of a flat percentage increase not being enough was legitimate, there was indeed language in the bill which could remedy my worries in a way that is more palatable to voters than language stating “exponential increase.”
Water You Talking About?
My next question was on the heavy emphasis that both the House and Senate version of carbon pricing bills had on allocating revenue to protecting water bodies. As an environmental engineer, I have a vested interest in promoting more water projects and for protecting our natural and potable water bodies; however, regarding this type of policy I found it difficult to justify the connection between a carbon tax and protecting watersheds.
Sarah told me that water rights are very important historically to both western and eastern Washington residents, and that preservation of water is very important for any policy around climate change because it is a high priority for many stakeholders and interested parties. So it sounded like that although I may still not agree with the decision for carbon pricing policies to reallocate tax revenue to water body protections (although I do believe that protecting natural water bodies is a fundamental responsibility of our nation and citizens), it is necessary to include language around protecting water rights and water management if the policy wishes to receive support from various environmental groups.
Where do we go from here?
I decided to close my conversation with Sarah by asking where their office plans to go from here–as an initiative has already been proposed, and the Senate version of a carbon tax bill was rejected this year.
Sarah said that she could not comment on the initiative, but that Joe Fitzgibbon’s office would support any means of putting a price on carbon, and that if policy was not established during the 2018 year, that they would be putting together another House bill in 2019.
Sarah continued on to say that carbon pricing was not the only avenue that Fitzgibbon’s office was using to address climate change. Low-carbon standards in fuel, modeled after a law in California that went into effect in 2009, is one way they wish to make change. According to Sarah, California has been effective in incentiving clean energy in the transportation and energy sector, and it is very impressive. Washington, unlike California, produces most of its energy from hydropower, so there is less room for improvement emission-wise in that sector. Therefore, the automotive industry is the dirtiest industry in Washington and needs the most help in transitioning to clean fuel.
This year, the aviation industry (along with others) provided very neutral feedback to carbon taxation, whereas in past years they were very negative toward any form of carbon pricing. This is a positive sign of shifting views of industries toward climate change. It is now being seen as an inevitable consequence, and it will be cheaper to make gradual changes to business practices now as opposed to drastic changes in the future.
Sarah Tucker spent a lot of time discussing my ideas and talking through what the future of carbon pricing and climate change policy may look like in Washington. At the end of the conversation she let me know that I could email her at any time if I had further questions about the nuances of carbon policy. I really appreciated her time and learned a lot from our talk. Furthermore, I am energized to continue the good fight and to see that carbon taxation is implemented swiftly and effectively in this state within the next two years. I am still in open communication with Frank Chopp’s office through Cindy, his legislative assistant. My current goal is to become more informed on this issue and meet with him at his district office. I encourage anyone reading this post to also become engaged in leading the fight against climate change by voicing your opinion on (1) why it is important to implement carbon pricing and/or carbon reduction policies and (2) what solutions and language we need to see in our cities’, states’, and nation’s policies.