Washington State Voters Reject Carbon Dioxide Tax, Again

Published December 7, 2018

For the second time in two years, Washington State voters rejected a proposal to tax carbon dioxide emissions.

Fifty-six percent of those voting in Washington’s midterm elections said no to a referendum that would have made the state the first in the nation to tax carbon dioxide emissions and the first government anywhere to impose the tax through a direct popular vote.

Initiative 1631 would have imposed a tax of $15 per metric ton on emissions of carbon dioxide, rising by $2 per ton each year until the state met its emissions reduction goals.

The state government had estimated the carbon dioxide tax would generate $2.2 billion in revenue in the first five years.

Slush Fund for Activists?

In contrast to California’s “cap and trade” scheme, which allows emitters to buy and sell unused credits for reducing emissions, Initiative 1631 would have imposed a tax on emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases emitted by select utilities and manufacturers and through transportation.

Technically, the proposed imposition would have been a fee under state law, because the revenue would not have been returned to taxpayers or funded general state operations. Instead, the initiative would have created a board to spend the revenue on a variety of “clean energy” projects, mass transit, and so-called environmental justice programs.

One reason the measure failed is voters do not trust politicians or environmental activists to spend the money wisely, says Todd Myers, director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News.

“In a year where voters in Washington State gave Democrats increased majorities, they also solidly rejected a big-government carbon tax,” Myers said. “Even in Washington State, the voters made it clear they don’t trust politicians or the environmental community to spend money wisely.”

Big Support from Activists

The tax initiative was widely supported by well-funded environmental activist groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The united support of environmental organizations increased the percentage of yes votes for the 2018 measure by only 4 percentage points over the 2016 measure, which lost by 60 percent to 40 percent.

The failed 2016 ballot proposal would have imposed a supposedly revenue-neutral tax on carbon dioxide emissions, with the money returned to businesses and individual taxpayers through reductions in various state taxes.

National and local environmental organizations opposed legislation proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee (D) in early 2018 to impose a tax on carbon dioxide emissions and send the revenues to the state’s general fund.

Environmental policy should emphasize market solutions, Myers says.

“The choice for good environmental policy is clear: continue to fixate on big-government programs the voters reject, or allow the free market to do more with less, creating prosperity and protecting the environment,” said Myers.

Joe Barnett (jbarnett@)heartland.orgis a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.