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Washington's carbon tax faces uphill fight

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The Koch brothers joined the attack Friday as environmental groups stepped up their eleventh-hour campaign to kill Initiative 732, which would establish the first tax on carbon pollution in the nation. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Low poll numbers and opposition from both environmental and business groups are spelling trouble for a Washington state ballot initiative that would allow the state to become the first to impose a carbon tax.

The Koch brothers joined the attack Friday as environmental groups stepped up their eleventh-hour campaign to kill Initiative 732, which would establish the first tax on carbon pollution in the nation.

The green groups say the measure is problematic because it would place an increasing burden on low-wage workers and minorities, despite proponents saying otherwise. That would lead to a backlash against climate change policies if the measure in its current form is passed. It also would drive up the state's debt and would not lead to more clean energy jobs and investment.

The carbon tax was suggested by economist and comedian Yoram Bauman, who successfully got it on the ballot as a revenue-neutral measure. The measure would place a $15-per-metric-ton tax on carbon dioxide emitted from the burning of fossil fuels in the state in 2017 and would raise it to $25 per metric ton in 2018. The tax would rise by 3.5 percent each year thereafter to a maximum of $100 per metric ton. Meanwhile, the state income tax would be reduced, and tax credits would be provided to the working poor who would be most affected by the levy.

The New York Times had called the measure a bellwether for other states to adopt a similar tax on carbon pollution, especially during an election season that has been virtually devoid of debate on climate change. Many scientists blame carbon pollution for raising the Earth's temperature, resulting in more extreme weather, flooding and drought.

Conservative industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch jumped into the fight from the Right on Friday, throwing $50,000 at the anti-carbon tax campaign being waged in the state, according to the Seattle Times.

Bill Koch, a brother to David and Charles, was in Florida Monday, speaking to a group of 600 people, where he reportedly said anyone who votes for a carbon tax would have to be on drugs. Specifically, the hallucinogenic drug LSD, or acid.

But a conflict in Washington among environmental groups over the ballot measure, with a large swath of greens opposing it from the Left, showcases problems with the initiative.

One subset of climate activists supports it and a much larger coalition opposes it. The Washington Post's editorial board said the greens' alternative to the tax measure, which would be something more akin to California's cap-and-trade program, would be worse. A cap-and-trade system places a limit on the amount of carbon allowed to be emitted and sells credits to the energy industry through auctions to allow them to transition to lowering emitting resources.

"You might assume these environmental groups were making the perfect the enemy of the good," according to an Oct. 27 Post editorial. "But they are not defending the perfect. Their approach would be worse than what is on Washington's ballot. They are wrong on the politics and wrong on the substance."

Vien Truong, the national director for the environmental group Green for All, is leading the charge against the measure. Although her group is all for taking action to combat climate change, she and many others believe Washington's ballot initiative would drive up the debt and impose increased costs on the poor.

Truong told the Washington Examiner that only 30-40 percent of the state's voters support the initiative, placing it on a trajectory to fail.

A poll conducted in late October by Komo News/Strategies 360 showed that 40 percent backed the initiative, 32 percent opposed it and 28 were unsure about the measure.

Truong said supporters of the measure must question "the substance" of the tax and see where it goes astray from sound policy.

She said many environmentalists and conservation groups don't like the ballot initiative because it gives away "big tax breaks" for business, while doing little to reduce pollution and driving up costs for the poorest citizens.

Truong said $200 million would be lost annually if the initiative is passed, while the state's debt would grow alongside an already big deficit.

Van Jones, President Obama's former environmental jobs adviser, who is also part of the campaign, told reporters last week that he has never opposed a climate change bill, but, "I am opposing this ones because it's just that bad."

The tax was misrepresented to the public, he said. It "blows a $200 million hole in the state budget," Jones said, making it a "climate policy done on the backs of the poor."

He said it's an attempt to "ram climate policies down the throats." This type of "ram and cram" strategy would have a backlash on climate policies if it is passed in its current form, he said. "We saw this in Nevada with the solar industry," Jones added.

In Nevada, solar subsidies were passed without being discussed with labor groups and minorities, which caused a backlash that led to the repeal of the tax credits. If the carbon tax is passed, there likewise will be a "backlash," he said.

The Washington tax would raise costs for the poorest in the state without doing much in the way of helping vulnerable communities and people of color, critics say.

Instead of Initiative 732, Truong and Jones want a measure that resembles California's cap-and-trade program, in which revenue from the sale of emission credits to businesses are put back into the state to create hundreds of the thousands of clean energy jobs, while assisting disadvantaged workers, attracting new businesses to the state, and giving business more clarity on what to expect.

Carbon Washington, which was instrumental in getting the tax on the ballot, said the Washington Post's editorial team got it right in responding to the growing opposition.

"Of the environmental establishment's opposition to I-732, The Washington Post Editorial Board said these groups 'are not defending the perfect. Their approach would be worse than what is on Washington's ballot. They are wrong on the politics and wrong on the substance,'" Carbon Washington said in a Thursday statement.

Bauman, the founder and co-chairman of the group, said the carbon tax campaign "shows that large numbers of people are tired of seeing too little happen to fight climate change and are dedicated to taking action."

The ballot initiative presents voters with a "historic opportunity to put a tax on carbon emissions, accelerate the shift to a clean energy, and make our tax system more equitable for everyone," he said.

Conservationists who support the carbon tax said it would help threatened species while reducing taxes. "How much longer can we wait to finally take meaningful action on climate change?" Audubon Washington director Gail Gatton asked.

"I-732 will help birds and people by reducing carbon pollution and lowering our sales tax. Opportunity doesn't knock very often, so let's open the door to a cleaner future," Gatton said.