Ending Bell

Session ends with environmental progress

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The bell sounded, and the Washington State Legislature adjourned this week.

Lawmakers made progress on key bills for environmental protection, but fell short of the hopes of a suddenly unified caucus long stalled on their agenda. Yet even with Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature, passage of critical climate policies did not happen.

The 2018 legislature adopted budgets that invest in communities and a healthy environment. Examples include $85 million for reducing toxic runoff, roughly $30 million for healthy forests, $80 million for clean energy projects, and an estimated $11 million for high-priority actions for orca recovery.

Additionally, legislators approved modest new regulations for firearms, a first-in-the-nation net neutrality bill and long-awaited policies such as the Reproductive Parity Act, equal pay for women, and several measures to improve voter access and strengthen democracy.

An ambitious effort to pass a carbon tax in Washington state faltered when Gov. Jay Inslee and the bill’s prime sponsor discovered there weren’t enough votes to pass the measure out of the state Senate. The bill had another hurdle to clear the House, also controlled by Democrats, before the conclusion of the short 60-day legislative session ended.

Washington would have been the first in the United States to impose a straight tax on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels like gasoline and electricity and the legislation has been closely watched nationally.

“I would consider this a sea change in the climate fight,” Inslee said in a statement to Associated Press. “It’s come a long way from where we’ve been. We’ve basically shown that carbon policy is within reach,” the Democratic governor said. He noted the bill cleared key policy and fiscal committees—advancing farther than previous measures—but didn’t have the votes to bring it to a floor vote.

Several attempts to price carbon have failed over the years, but the concept made it further through the legislative process than ever before. Supporters of the concept were ready.

The push to put a price on carbon pollution is now up to voters.

Backers filed an initiative to price carbon the day after the bill’s demise in the senate and say they will start collecting signatures early next month.

A Clean Energy Standard—which would have forced utilities to transition to 100 percent fossil-free electricity by 2045, including a complete phase out of coal by 2030—also failed.

Despite the losses of these high-profile bills, environmental groups were upbeat about progress.

“The hundreds of environmental bills introduced this session show just how eager our state has been for action,” said Darcy Nonemacher, government affairs director for the Washington Environmental Council, a coalition of major environmental group.

“This year, we made needed progress on some key issues, but we have more work ahead to protect our environment,” Nonemacher said in a press statement.

The legislature made some gains by passing a bill to stabilize funding for the state council that sets energy and water efficiency codes for buildings and homes. Lawmakers also invested roughly $80 million in clean energy projects, building efficiency upgrades, and weatherizing low-income homes.

“We expect efforts to get the state on a course toward 100 percent clean energy to be continued in subsequent sessions, given the urgent need for comprehensive climate action,” Nonemacher said.

The legislature hailed the passage of a comprehensive Oil Spill Prevention Act with bipartisan support.

The bill seeks to improve the state’s prevention and preparedness programs, and closes a tax loophole for oil moving by pipeline. Market changes in the shipment of unrefined products means about 40 percent of all oil arriving in the state comes through pipelines.

The law creates an action plan to address the threat of barge traffic, and directs a transboundary summit on Salish Sea risks and protections with Canadian authorities.

While punting on the issue of overall water supply, the legislature committed $300 million to improved water quality and access across the state. Critical issues remain unaddressed, however; and water resources will continue to be depleted for farmers, fish runs and communities across the state.

Washington also became the first state in the country to champion a particular form of toxic-free paper food packaging. Chemicals known as PFASs are industrial byproducts linked to cancer and liver toxicity, and are extremely persistent in the environment. Under the new law, PFASs found in products like microwave popcorn bags and sandwich wrappers will be phased out beginning Jan 1, 2020, as safer alternatives become available.

Despite setbacks, Democrats made headway, especially when compared to the previous six years, in which the Senate was controlled by Republicans and climate issues were barely heard.

Hoping to seal in place some of that advantage, finally—after years of work by the Washington Voting Justice Coalition—the legislature passed the Washington Voting Rights Act, which includes automatic voter registration, same-day registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year -olds.

Democrats are confident a new generation of voters who have grown up in a world challenged by climate change and social justice are ready to be heard at the polls.

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