In Bellingham interview, Inslee touts carbon tax to pay for education, transportation

The fate of Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposals for education, transportation and energy remained far from certain as he toured the state this week to pitch his ideas, including a stop in Bellingham on Monday, March 2.

At Western Washington University, Inslee, in a one-on-one interview, transitioned easily among the three policy areas. For the governor, they are connected. He touts a proposal that could help pay for education and transportation while reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

Under the governor’s bill dubbed the Carbon Pollution Accountability Act, the state would raise money by selling emission allowances to the state’s biggest carbon polluters. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates carbon dioxide as a pollution because it is causing global temperatures to increase.

Businesses and agencies that hold the allowances could then buy and sell the allowances under a cap-and-trade system.

Inslee said a recent poll shows that putting a charge on carbon emissions is more acceptable to the public than increasing the gas tax, sales tax or property tax.

“If you’re going to put a charge on something, put a charge on something you don’t want — and what we don’t want is carbon pollution,” he said.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, and other Republicans have criticized Inslee‘s bill for branding major industries — including two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter in Whatcom County — as “polluters” that would pay a form of penalty.

While the carbon pollution bill must get through the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, which Ericksen chairs, the senator said he won’t block it outright; he has allotted time in his committee to hear the bill.

The governor is optimistic that both parties will agree taxes are needed to balance the budget this session, and that the carbon tax is the most palatable option.

“There’s not the votes to pass (the carbon pollution bill) in the Senate, today, for sure, but over time I think it does have an opportunity,” Inslee said. “We’re working diligently to line up the votes, starting in the House, to pass it.”

Ericksen, reached by phone Thursday, March 5, said it’s wrong to characterize the battle over Inslee’s carbon bill as Senate Republicans vs. the governor.

“I don’t think he has the votes to get it out of the House, which is Democrat-controlled,” Ericksen said.

Much of what the Legislature seeks to accomplish this session revolves around public education. The 2012 state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision could require as much as $6 billion more in the 2015-17 budget to properly fund the basic education of students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

State law has defined basic education to include the formula that funds individual school districts and all-day kindergarten, special education, gifted programs, and transportation.

Inslee would add some extras to the list, such as early-childhood education, smaller classes, and more emphasis on science and math.

“We know they work,” Inslee said. “We just need the will to actually put the resources in where they work.”

The Legislature also could pass the first major transportation funding package since 2005. Inslee said he was glad to see the Republican-controlled Senate pass a $15 billion transportation plan on Monday. The Senate would pay for the package, in part, by raising the gas tax and, to a much smaller degree, by depositing transportation project sales-tax revenues in a highway fund rather than the general fund, which pays for education.

Inslee said that in the face of the McCleary decision, the general fund can’t afford to give up that sales-tax revenue.

In response, Ericksen said it was misleading to say the sales tax revenue from transportation projects would be lost to education. The revenue won’t even be raised unless the transportation package and the additional gas tax to pay for it are approved.

Putting sales tax money generated by transportation projects into a transportation fund rather than the general fund makes more sense, Ericksen said.

“Most people are quite surprised to hear we’re actually using gas tax dollars to pay sales tax,” he said.