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Washington Voters Reject Carbon Tax, But State's Battle Over Global Warming Continues

Washington Secretary of State
Washington voters reject Initiative 732, a direct tax on carbon emissions.

Washington voters gave an overwhelming thumbs down Tuesday to a citizen initiative to impose a direct tax on carbon emissions. But that doesn't look to be the end of the story on regulating global warming pollution at the state level.

With much of the vote now tallied in Washington state, the nation's first voter initiative to create a carbon tax is going down 59 to 41 percent. The campaign director for the opposition to Initiative 732 said the discussion on climate and energy policy is not over in the state.

"We believe that we have an obligation to act and to do what is right,” said Brandon Houskeeper from the Association of Washington Business. “The question is how do we come up with a pathway that is commensurate with Washington's contribution to a global problem. I think it requires us having a broad table."

In the short term, the action shifts to the courtroom. Industry associations are hoping to strike down separate Inslee administration global warming pollution regulations. The main feature of the state’s new Clean Air Rule is a gradually tightening cap on emissions from the state's biggest sources.

Further down the road, another initiative that taxes carbon pollution is a possibility, but an alliance behind that said in a statement Wednesday that it will first take a stab at passing something through the 2017 Washington Legislature.

The labor and environmental group-backed Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy posted a summary of a revised legislative proposal Tuesday. It would put an escalating price on carbon emissions and use the proceeds to support alternative energy projects as well as "investments" to mitigate effects of climate change on forests and vulnerable communities.

"With everything else the legislature has on its plate... the climate proposal will face an uphill battle," Washington Environmental Council President Becky Kelley acknowledged.

But in light of the election of climate change skeptic Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, "State level action is where it's going to be at," Kelley said.

If there were to be another ballot measure, Washington State Labor Council President Jeff Johnson said he would target the general election two years hence.

"2017 would be nearly impossible to pull off," Johnson said in an interview. "2018 is more appropriate time wise."

"It's a dark moment for the climate landscape," said state Representative Joe Fitzgibbon, a Democrat from Seattle, reflecting on the election fallout Wednesday. In a subsequent email, Fitzgibbon shed some of his glumness.

“Voters have shown, by reelecting Gov. Inslee and electing a pro-climate action majority in the (state) House, that we are ready for climate action in Washington,” Fitzgibbon wrote.

"Carbon Washington will continue as an organization,” said Joe Ryan, co-chair of the group that sponsored the failed Initiative 732. “Our grassroots base is our strength. We are energized to continue our work on carbon pricing in the state legislature, and to promote effective, equitable, economically sound and politically viable carbon pricing in other states and in Washington, D.C.”

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.