gas prices

Recycling is all well and good, but not when it comes to the Legislature’s latest attempt to combat climate change by proposing solutions that result in higher gas prices, thus putting the pocketbook hurt on all Washingtonians, especially those in the Yakima Valley.

Didn’t voters just reject a plan, Initiative 1631, that would place a fee on carbon polluters (that’s you, large, multi-national oil companies) while virtually assuring that residents would see a significant price rise at the pump and higher electricity bills?

Why, yes, they did — by a 56 to 44 margin last November.

But now, a scant few months later, comes the state Senate with a bouillabaisse of transportation bills to address greenhouse gases, chief among them a carbon fee that would be set at $15 per ton, raising about $7.9 billion in the next decade. The fee (or tax, depending on one’s semantic preferences) could lead to as much as a 15-cent increase on a gallon of gas. The package would raise the motor and special fuel excise tax by at least 6 cents per gallon, and increase fees of vehicle weight, licenses, auto parts and even sale of new bicycles.

So, in response to this do-over by the Legislature, let’s do a rerun of our own and provide an excerpt from our editorial from Oct. 23 urging voters to reject I-1631:

“While there is no doubt that measures to combat climate change are needed, this particular attempt to curb greenhouse gas emitters is a flawed initiative with what we fear will be unintended consequences that will negatively impact the citizenry — namely, an estimated 14-cent per gallon increase that oil companies most assuredly would pass down to consumers, and a significant rise in utility costs.

“That is why we recommended a “no” vote on I-1631 but, at the same time, urge the state lawmakers in the next session to pick up the environmental torch and work to pass legislation that addresses the issue without unfairly financially burdening many Central Washingtonians, including small businesses and agriculture, with increased energy bills.”

Fast forward three months, and the Senate has, indeed, picked up the torch, but this new proposal would essentially financially burden Central Washingtonians just as much – or more --as if I-1631 had passed. The current bill, if approved, would elevate Washington state from the third-highest gas tax in the nation (49.4 cents) to the highest, eclipsing Pennsylvania (58.7).

That’s not something to be crowing “We’re No. 1” about. We can only hope this gas-tax plan stalls in the full Senate, but with Democrats in the majority in both legislative bodies and a climate-change-centric governor, passage could be a reality.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, the Senate Transportation Committee chairman, disputes that the cluster of bills is a rehash of past failed efforts to address climate change via taxation. Asked by reporters recently why the public should support this version of a carbon fee when 36 of the state’s 39 counties rejected last November’s attempt, he said, “There are other reasons why they said no.” Hobbs’ stance is that I-1631 simply was nebulously written, with a appointed board tasked with spending the money on what it deemed fit from an increasing ladder of fees on polluters over the years.

We’ll give Hobbs this much: The Senate’s bills this time are far more straight-forward. Residents will know where the money is going: road and highway maintenance projects; replacing state-owned culverts to help migrating salmon and steelhead trout; improving stormwater collection; promoting electric car ownership and electric ferry use; and other local mass transit programs.

Those are laudable uses for state funds – and, in the case of culverts, something mandated by the courts – but not at the expense of low-income residents who struggle with filling up their cars’ tank as it is. And it’s not as if the Valley has a robust infrastructure of bus and rail lines, a la the Puget Sound area, so travel by car is essential to making end’s meet. The agriculture industry, too, relies on trucking its produce, and it risks hurting the area economy should gas prices rise further.

Washington’s regressive tax system already disproportionately affects those with the least wiggle room in their household budgets. Lower-income residents seemingly are just as concerned with combating climate change as those of more means, but they will be unfairly called upon to bear the bulk of the burden.

As this editorial board urged last October, we sincerely hope the Legislature will pick up the torch. What they need to do in this session is torch Hobbs’ plan and get creative to find a package that won’t jack up gas prices to unreasonable heights.

Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.