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Inslee makes pitch for carbon tax in state of the state

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Gov. Jay Inslee made a forceful push Tuesday for a carbon tax in his annual state of the state address and urged lawmakers to quickly implement court-ordered increases in education funding.

Inslee said President Donald Trump is abandoning the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but Washington state "will walk forward and join this battle for our world's health future."

The Democratic governor has previously said he wants to use state reserves to help pay for education improvements ordered by the state Supreme Court. He would backfill that reserve withdrawal with about $1 billion in carbon tax revenues.

In his speech Inslee said business, tribal, environmental and labor interests will be part of the conversation and that urban and rural areas would benefit from such a tax. Republicans, who this year are in the minority in the House and Senate, have been cool to the idea of a carbon tax. Some Democrats are skeptical as well.

Under bills introduced in the House and Senate, a proposed tax of $20 per metric ton of carbon emissions would start on July 1, 2019 and increase annually by 3.5 percent over inflation.

The tax would raise about $1.5 billion over the first two years and an estimated $3.3 billion over the next four years. Half of the money from the tax — which would be paid by power plants and fuel importers but would ultimately affect consumers — would go into efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as programs to expand opportunities for renewable energy at both homes and utilities, and research of clean energy technology. An additional 35 percent would go into flood management and storm water infrastructure, and would also be used to reduce risks of wildfires.

Democratic House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said that while nothing is off the table, there are a diversity of opinions surrounding the tax within his caucus.

"It's a challenge," he said. "There's no question about it."

Even with the possibility of an initiative to the people looming, Sullivan said it would take consensus between lawmakers and various advocacy groups to get something through in a short 60-day session.

In a press conference after the speech, Republican leaders from the House and Senate criticized the costs that consumers could face under such a plan.

Policy staff for Inslee said that the impact on consumers from the tax would range from a 4 to 5 percent increase in electricity, a 9 to 11 percent increase in natural gas, and a 6 to 9 percent increase in gasoline.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler said after the speech that the proposal "is about new and higher taxes, it's not about fixing the problem."

In his address Inslee also called for the Legislature to pass several bills seeking to increase voter participation and equitable representation, saying that: "Access to democracy is a cornerstone to the enduring health of our nation and state."

He also called on lawmakers to protect net neutrality for Washington residents following last month's decision by the Federal Communications Commission to undo the Obama-era rules that meant to prevent broadband companies such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon from exercising more control over what people watch and see on the internet.

And he urged legislative leaders to commit to ensuring a workplace "where everyone is safe from sexual harassment and assault."

Leaders in the House and Senate have been reviewing policies and procedures on how best to move forward on addressing sexual harassment, training and reporting procedures following a series of stories and allegations that have arisen out of the Washington Capitol in recent months.

More than 200 women — including lobbyists and lawmakers — signed a letter in November calling for a culture change at the Capitol.

Inslee also told lawmakers to avoid a "legacy of irresponsible brinksmanship" when it comes to passage of a capital budget. Inslee told the Legislature that passage of the $4 billion budget was a crucial first order of business this session.

Lawmakers adjourned last year without passing the budget because of a dispute over how to address a court ruling related to water rights and well permits. Republicans — who were in the majority in the Senate last year, but are the minority party this year — have insisted on a fix to the ruling, known as the Hirst ruling, before they agree to pass the two-year budget that affects projects in districts across the state, including $1 billion for K-12 school construction and money to help build facilities for the state's mental health system. It also pays the salaries of hundreds of state workers in various departments. Even though Democrats control both the House and the Senate now, they still need Republican votes to pass a bond bill necessary to implement the budget.

After the speech, Republicans expressed anger that Inslee didn't mention the water bill in his speech and said that the two measures will continue to be linked together.