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Voters to decide fate of state's climate act

The debate over how Washington reduces greenhouse gasses is headed for a showdown in November.

To supporters, The Climate Commitment Act (CCA) is a "gold standard" environmental policy, because it sets carbon limits on polluters who must pay if they don't meet emission goals.

To critics, the program is failing because it isn't really reducing emissions, is pushing up the cost of gasoline and much of the $1.8 billion it has generated isn't going to projects that reduce greenhouse gasses.

This November, the voters will decide who they believe.

Initiative 2117, signed by hundreds of thousands of Washington voters, calls for a repeal of the CCA. The Democrat-controlled Legislature chose to not hold hearings on the initiative so by law it will be placed on the ballot and voters will decide whether it should continue. The program went into effect in 2023 and is supposed to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Republican Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen), the original drafter of the initiatives, claims this initiative is a “consumer relief” priority to reduce gas prices. Some argue cap and trade increased gas prices by 50 cents/gallon, while Clean and Prosperous Washington claims it's closer to 25 cents.

“The Climate Commitment Act is a house built on lies,” Walsh said. “No part of it has ever been truthful to the people of Washington, and the best example is Governor Inslee’s ill-fated quote that the effect would be pennies; everyone knew that was not true even when he said it.”

Paula Sardinas, CEO and President of FMS Global Strategies, disagrees. She says the repeal will devastate several projects that are positively impacting communities.

“I think it will be life ending. We would have to ask ourselves, how much does the life of our children matter?” Sardinas said. “If we don't have funding, we can't continue to deliver on that $17 billion green transportation promise that we've made to these kids.”

Walsh and John Braun, R-Centralia, have been outspoken in asserting that none of the CCA dollars directly contribute to carbon reduction. Braun, unlike Walsh, thinks that much good is accomplished under the CCA but does not think it is about reducing carbon.

“To date, we have collected about $1.8 billion, but we have only spent about $100 million,” Braun said. “And when you really dig into how that money is spent, you will find that very little of it is actually going toward carbon reduction.”

Sardina listed a handful of projects that would go away without CCA funding.

• Electric school buses for Black communities to help with childhood asthma.

• Three electric vehicles have been provided from CCA funding to BIPOC populations in rideshare deserts. They are able to lease the cars for $64 dollars a day compared to Uber's $106.

• 3,000 families who are undocumented, live in food deserts, or lack the transportation to reach a food bank or church, receive food boxes delivered with new electric vans.

• CCA dollars provide communities with air quality monitoring devices to measure particulate matter.

• Electric bikes and scooters for low-income communities that do not necessarily want cars.

• The kids ride free program lets children under 18 to ride public transit for free.

Although Walsh says he is pro-carbon reduction, he wants to do it differently. He claims the CCA is not a good environmental policy and is “upper-middle class virtue signaling.”

Chair of the Senate Transportation, Marko Liias, says he and Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, ranking member of the Transportation Committee, worked together this legislative session to propose a truly bipartisan budget. King agreed. However, Liias contends that repealing the CCA will have profound consequences for their budget, which can’t afford the cuts.

King also believes opting out of the CCA will “get us back to reality” and make us look at “what works and what doesn’t.” For example, he worries that Washington will become energy dependent on other states and wonders how state roads will fare with heavier electric cars.

He is not anti-carbon reduction and has proposed alternative plans to address it, but he believes some Democrats fail to see the whole picture. He mentioned that the Department of Ecology has failed to provide a report to see if our emissions are going down.

Liias said if the CCA is repealed, the biggest hit will be transit programs, with $3 billion allocated to them, including the kid's ride-free program. The second hit, he says, will be ferries. If those budget dollars go away, the Legislature still has to run the ferry system and would have to reallocate money to buy the hybrid diesel boats. An additional $261 million to build new ferries with CCA dollars was proposed by Senate Transportation.

“I think if you look at studies nationally about what you can do in transportation to reduce our emissions, it is: get more people to ride transit, walk and bike and electrify everything you can,” Liias said.

But do these projects mentioned by Sardinas and Liias directly reduce carbon? Braun and Walsh say no.

Liias thinks arguments that the CCA does not go toward carbon reduction are “rhetorical” and not “fact-based,” pointing to the fact that some people in the Legislature believe that the earth is cooling and deny climate change.

“It's clear this is not the policy approach they would take, and I respect that, but there are some facts in the discussion, and the fact is that we are investing it in things that will make emissions in the state go down,” Liias said.

Liias does not understand how legislators could think that the CCA money is not spent on reducing carbon because “the law requires” it to be spent on carbon-reducing activities.

Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, and Chair of the House Transportation Committee, has similar concerns, especially with ferries, given that 25% of the money comes from CCA.

“If the initiative passes, we would have to review everything we had planned to spend,” Fey said. “It creates just a huge problem.”

In Inslee's proposed 2024 CCA spending plan, key elements that some argue do not directly reduce carbon include allocating 41% of the budget to "overburdened communities" and providing $23 million directly to tribes.

Overburdened communities are defined as places that are vulnerable to air quality issues, are low-income, minority, tribal, indigenous or bear the brunt of environmental issues. Projects include funding public assemblies to come up with climate policy solutions, piloting Health Equity Zones, creating a work group to address the impact of communities near airports, installing air filtration enhancements and more.

For Tribes, of the allotted $23 million, Inslee proposes $10 million should go to capacity funding to “support them as they mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.” This includes grants to purchase electric boats and motors, funds to begin designing a microgrid system, $2 million for a “Tribal clean energy innovation and training center,” and grants for salmon recovery, stormwater drains that will improve aquatic life and more.

Michael Mann, executive director of Clean and Prosperous Washington, a nonprofit advocating for climate policies, has spent over a decade promoting the CCA as the "gold standard" of climate policy. He warns that if the repeal passes, the state will lose decades of climate efforts. Mann emphasizes that the CCA needs time to yield results and urges patience.

“There may be a few cases where the Legislature has not been true to the Climate Commitment Act in their expenditures across the board ...but 95% of the expenditures from the CCA are tied to carbon reduction,” Mann said.

Mann does not deny that the CCA has increased the gas prices, but he says his nonprofit’s reporting puts the increase at about 25 cents per gallon.

“Fossil fuel emissions have been able to be made for free for a century in Washington State, and last year, we finally put a price on polluting our skies and our waters,” Mann said.

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