Politics & Government

House Democrats see carbon emissions tax as educational funding fix

Democrats in the state House aren’t excited about a Republican plan to raise the statewide property tax to help the state pay its share of basic education costs.

Instead, they’d rather fix the problem by using a tax on carbon emissions — an idea championed this year by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, but that has gained little traction in the Legislature so far.

Taxing polluters is an option mentioned only briefly in House Democrats’ plan to reform the use of local school district levies, House Bill 2239. But lead Democrats in the House said last week they are serious about exploring how fees on carbon emissions could help reduce the state’s reliance on local school district levies to pay for basic education costs, a problem the state Supreme Court has said is unconstitutional and must be solved.

Using a carbon charge as part of a levy reform solution is one of the ideas being developed by a group of lawmakers who are working behind the scenes to advance the governor’s cap-and-trade proposal, said Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Inslee.

The Supreme Court has said that basic education costs, including paying teachers and buying school supplies, are the state’s responsibility and shouldn’t be paid through local school district levies.

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle and the chairman of the House Finance Committee, called taxing pollution to help reduce the unconstitutional use of local levy dollars “a super-exciting idea.”

“It gives us an opportunity to explore a double win, where we first and foremost fix our constitutional problem, and second take a big step forward with reducing climate change,” Carlyle said.

Carlyle said he was “decidedly unenthusiastic” about raising property taxes as proposed by Senate Republicans.

“Asking working families and the middle class and small businesses to pay more in property taxes, rather than asking 130 of our state’s biggest polluters to pay for their own products and the impact on the climate, is beyond reasonable,” said Carlyle, a co-sponsor of House Bill 2239.

The Republican proposal, Senate Bill 6109, would reduce local school district levies to no more than $1.25 per $1,000 in assessed value, while raising the statewide common schools levy to $3.30 per $1,000 in value by 2020.

The concept behind the property-tax swap is that the statewide tax increase would be offset by the reduction in local school district levies, allowing the state to shoulder the full burden of paying teachers and running schools without dramatically changing individuals’ property tax rates.

As it is currently written, though, the proposal in the Senate would raise taxes for property owners in more than 40 percent of the state’s school districts, while lowering taxes elsewhere. The Republican plan would also raise roughly $700 million in property taxes annually above what will be needed to offset decreases in local levy collections, which Democrats have criticized as a widespread tax increase.

The sponsor of that proposal, Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, declined to comment last week on the Democrats’ idea of using carbon fees to help shift education costs from local school districts to the state. He said he is focused on tweaking his bill to mitigate the projected property tax increases in individual school districts.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said the governor’s plan to tax polluters is essentially a tax on energy, which will be passed on to consumers. He said support for such a proposal is lacking not just in the Republican-controlled Senate, but also in the Democrat-led House.

“I’d like to see them get the votes for an energy tax on working families,” said Ericksen, the chairman of the Senate’s Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee.

The governor’s cap-and-trade proposal, House Bill 1314, would require the state’s largest polluters to buy emissions allowances, while setting a statewide cap on greenhouse gas emissions that the state would lower over time. The plan, which would raise about $1 billion a year for schools, mass transit and other state needs, didn’t make it to the House floor for a vote during the regular legislative session.

House Democrats’ levy reform proposal would set a 2018 deadline for the state to take on basic education costs that are now being funded through local levies. It doesn’t specify a level for capping local levies, nor does it establish a means for shifting those costs to the state budget, but would study the idea of using “a carbon pollution tax” for that purpose.

The bill would direct a new education funding council to make recommendations about using a carbon pollution tax to the Legislature by November 2016.