Hello, CarbonWA friends: We hope you enjoyed the first part of our 2018 series, focusing on the prospects for legislative action. Read on for the initiative prospects for 2018! But first, check out these recent media hits from CarbonWA including “Washington groups push renewed carbon tax push” in Carbon Pulse, a letter to the editor from supporter Zach Stednick in the Seattle Times (“Washington can distinguish itself as the first state to implement a carbon tax”), and in the Washington State Wire (“A look ahead to a 2018 climate initiative“). We’ll kick off our initiative analysis with this quote from the Wire story:

“There are those of us who are looking at these multiple efforts and thinking ‘nothing is for sure yet’, so we need to make a plan to ensure something goes to voters that is politically viable and effective at reducing carbon.”

The Landscape 

The landscape for a ballot initiative in 2018 is defined largely by voter turnout and sentiment towards taxes and climate.

Voter turnout: We know that young people, low-income people, and other key climate constituencies tend to vote less regularly than the average person. A young person may vote in a presidential election but not vote for another 4 years until the next one. Take a look at turnout in recent years:

  • 2012: 81%
  • 2013: 45%
  • 2014: 54%
  • 2015: 38%
  • 2016: 79%
  • 2018: ?

Environmental causes have a structural advantage in presidential years that turns into a structural disadvantage in off-years. 2018 may be an anomaly in that a backlash against Donald Trump will hopefully drive turnout and energy among key climate constituencies. However, the progressive backlash of 2006 brought turnout just to the mid 60’s. A 2018 measure will have to spend extra money, recruit extra grassroots volunteers, and hope for a Trump turnout effect to get a measure over the top.

Tax Increases on the ballot: The history of tax increases on the ballot is mixed and is worth looking into as we analyze potential ballot options on climate. In fact, in the last 20 years, only 3 statewide measures have been passed that broadly raised taxes, while 4 of such measures failed. Let’s take a look at the more recent history:

  • 2010: A statewide income tax measure failed receiving just 36% of the vote.
  • 2014: King County roads and transit levy failed with 45% of the vote.
  • 2016: ST3 passed raising taxes and expanding light rail. However recent polling shows voters may be changing their mind now that they are paying the bill.
  • 732 failed: While not a tax increase, it was perceived by many as such and opponents campaigned as if it was a tax increase.
  • 2017: King County Arts’ levy failed in the spring but a veterans social service levy looks likely to pass in this week’s election (remember to vote!).

Much will depend on whether a ballot initiative is perceived as primarily an environmental measure, or primarily a tax measure. A tax measure will need to win handily in King County but there are signs of potential tax fatigue in King County, as evidenced by the new negative ST3 polling and the failure of the arts levy. The legislatures deal to fund K-12 education through property tax increases may reinforce this as well.

The Timeline: An initiative campaign will need to collect around 350,000 signatures from January-July of 2018 to qualify for the November 2018 ballot. So, while it is possible to delay the start of signature gathering into February or March, it becomes increasingly expensive and difficult to get on the ballot the longer you wait.

The Keys to Success Effective and viable policy: The choice of whether to go with a smaller carbon tax, a stronger carbon tax, or non-carbon tax options (like a ban on coal power), as well as the choice of what to spend any revenue on, have a significant impact on the political viability of a ballot effort. We think the best approach will aggressively cut carbon, take into account the interests of middle and lower class people, and will make an effort towards bipartisanship. We are keeping an open mind on policy thus far.

Polling: There seems to be two camps when it comes to polling: those who believe polling is everything and those who believe polling is nothing. Our take is that polling is definitely something! Conventional wisdom is that you need to get to 60%-65% in polls to have a shot at the ballot but our take is that something in the mid-high 50’s could be worth taking a risk on if it is an effective policy. Recall that 732 had a mixture of promising and poor polling, and we ended up securing 41% of the vote. We haven’t seen any new polling from the Alliance on their carbon tax concept, but last year we saw model revenue-positive carbon tax measures that polled in the low 50’s. If the polling for a carbon tax initiative is still in the low 50’s, it is winnable but highly risky. If it has dropped any lower, the measure will struggle.

Money: The conventional wisdom is that the oil industry will spend in the neighborhood of $10 million dollars against a more united climate effort. With more and more oil companies embracing climate regulation, they may be softening up, but we still expect a considerable ‘no’ campaign against anything that comes up in 2018. A ‘yes’ effort will need to raise at least a few million dollars, and ideally more. One of the things we learned from the 732 effort was that even after all of our grassroots campaigning and a targeted TV effort, only 20% of voters had heard a lot about 732 before the vote. While grassroots efforts can play a key role with swing segments of the electorate and in turning out irregular voters, you also need TV to reach the masses.

Grassroots: A strong grassroots effort will convey legitimacy, save money, and provide ground troops needed to move the swing voters who would be key to victory. There is evidence that door knocking is the most effective (but an extremely slow) way to change minds and ensure infrequent voters actually mail their ballot in.

The Map: A successful initiative effort will need to capitalize on the base of climate voters established during 732, and add on about 10% of the electorate. One winning path could look like taking King County with 60-65%, winning most of Puget sound by 50-55%, and staying competitive in Eastern Washington in the mid-high 40%’s. A look back at the election analysis from 732 showed that there was strong support within Seattle and among diverse communities in King County, the 732 effort failed to hold the suburbs or win in Pierce or Snohomish County. That’s where the next effort needs to focus its attention.

The Key Players to Watch

The Quinault Indian Nation and other Washington tribes: The Quinault have led a vocal opposition to the Alliance effort thus far, and criticized legislative carbon tax efforts we worked on last spring. Recently, the Quinault leadership stated that they are willing to move ahead with their own initiative. According to Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Tribe, right now they are working on “principles that will form the backbone” of any initiative. Their communications thus far have highlighted the need for aggressive carbon reductions and investments in rural communities.They convened a meeting of Washington tribes that was intended to reach consensus on those principles. As sovereign nations and co-equal managers (with the state government) of the state’s natural resources, the Indian tribes have a lot of political clout. They could be either a potent ally or formidable opponent of any initiative campaign. It is not yet clear to us whether there will be an independent initiative effort from them or whether they may join with other actors in the space.

The Audubon Society: Audubon Washington has been become a bit of a climate powerhouse over the last couple years, taking a leadership role on recent initiative and legislative efforts. For 2018, they seems to be taking a similar approach to CarbonWA: wait and see what campaign develops and but be prepared to step up if necessary. We also know they are preparing to make another go of it at the legislature (as are we!). With a large grassroots membership and significant resources, the bird people would be a potent ally to any ballot effort.

The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy: The Alliance has been very active organizing and recruiting other groups to join their effort (kudos to them!) and they’ve been public about their intent to go to the ballot in 2018. We did sit down with them recently and appreciated the dialogue. They still have not finished their policy  work, legal language, or shared polling – all key factors we need to see to determine whether their effort is viable. The Alliance has the coalition to mount a serious ballot effort, but they will have to overcome the inherent headwinds of running a tax measure (the concept they are working on is a revenue generating carbon tax), converge around a final version of an effective and popular policy, and raise a substantial war-chest. We are reserving our judgement until we see more from them.

Puget Sound Energy and the Association of Washington Businesses: These two entities led the “No” campaign on 732 and have opposed our legislative efforts as well. Whether they take a neutral or opposing stance on a climate ballot measure will influence the chances of success. It’s definitely possible to overcome their opposition – but the path is smoother if you don’t have to.

Big Oil: The Western States Petroleum Association, which represents the big west coast oil refiners, stayed on the sidelines during the I-732 campaign. But Tesoro, the Koch brothers, and east coast petroleum interests all contributed to AWB’s no campaign. Whether WSPA remains on the sidelines or joins the fight against a 2018 initiative, and how much the other oil interests contribute, will set the funding bar for a successful yes campaign.

Boeing: The big B is one of the 900lb gorillas of Washington state politics. They publicly stayed on the sidelines during the I-732 campaign, but that policy offset the carbon tax by cutting the B&O tax for manufacturers. How will a different effort address Boeing? Be on the lookout for exemptions or subsidies that try to keep Boeing neutral.

Microsoft: The software giant has imposed an internal carbon tax and has made significant strides towards improving the energy efficiency of its facilities. They’ve also been engaging more actively in state politics, but stayed on the sidelines during I-732. Microsoft’s public endorsement (and financial support) of a climate measure would be a valuable counterweight to opposition from other business interests – if the Redmond brass decides to engage

The Takeaway:

While turnout will be down compared to 2016, public awareness is probably up after the horrid year of climate news from fires to hurricanes. The Trump administration’s hostility to climate action also focuses attention on states like Washington and increases the urgency for action. 2020 will probably be a better year for a climate measure but there isn’t time to miss any opportunities. There is also no reason why the climate movement can’t take a shot now and take a shot again in 2020. Even though it won’t be easy, the climate movement can win in 2018, so we want to see a climate measure of some kind move forward next year.

However, we had hoped that the content and strategy around a 2018 initiative would be settled by now. We will continue to urge the environmental community to take action in 2018 so we can move forward on climate in one form or another. Rest assured that we will continue to provide transparent updates and we will be prepared to step up to the plate if an effort does not emerge.

The adventure continues!