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OLYMPIA — A carbon tax bill in the Washington Senate seeks to shelter farmers from higher fuel costs and calls for investing in rural economies with electric vehicles, public transit and a faster internet to encourage telecommuting.
Farm groups and rural Republican legislators, however, have not warmed to the bill.
Farm groups say they’re worried about increasing off-farm transportation costs, while rural lawmakers say the tax will penalize their constituents who drive long distances to work.
“We might as well go back to the horse and buggy because that’s what they’re going to be able to afford,” said Republican Sen. Randi Becker, who represents rural parts of Thurston and Pierce counties in Western Washington.
A carbon tax has never before progressed as far in the Legislature, but it has this session. The Democratic-controlled Senate Ways and Means Committee passed Senate Bill 6203 along party-lines Thursday.
The carbon tax may advance no farther. Two Democrats voted “yes” to keep the bill alive, but warned they wanted it amended to reduce the measure’s reliance on higher consumer energy costs to steer the economy from fossil fuels.
Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, said the Legislature should take on reducing greenhouse gases, but added, “I am really concerned about the strategy that’s being used through a regressive tax such as this, where those who can least afford it will be bearing the biggest burden.”
The Washington Farm Bureau counts producers among those least able to afford the tax. The carbon tax wouldn’t apply to diesel, biodiesel and aviation fuel used in food production, but it would increase other production costs, Farm Bureau associate director of government relations Evan Sheffels said.
“We just can’t absorb those costs,” he said. “We’re looking for something that would be farm-budget neutral, and we don’t see that.”
At a hearing this month, Northwest Agricultural Cooperative Council lobbyist Ben Buchholz said the tax would raise the cost of moving goods “from the farm supply store to the farm and from the farm to the farmers’ market or the packing house or to the port. That’s our biggest concern.”
The bill’s prime sponsor, Seattle Democrat Reuven Carlyle, said carbon-reduction projects in rural areas make more sense than ratcheting up spending on the effects of climate change such as wildfires.
“It really has the practical effect of being a capital budget for our rural areas, for our water systems, for our forests and for our public infrastructure,” he said.
The committee set the tax rate at $12 per ton of carbon dioxide. It will increase energy costs, including gasoline by more than 10 cents a gallon, according to state estimates. The tax would increase by $1.80 annually until reaching $30 per ton of carbon dioxide.
According to a report by the governor’s budget office, a slightly lower tax rate would raise more than $400 million a year. State agencies would add 87.5 employees to collect the tax and oversee its allocation.
The bill calls for spending the new taxes on “low carbon innovation and entrepreneurship,” including in the following ways:
• To cut carbon emissions from livestock and agricultural activities.
• To establish “clean energy centers for excellence” at two community colleges in rural counties.
• To reduce single-vehicle occupant trips and increase transit ridership in rural areas.
• For “electrification of transportation in rural communities.”
• For encouraging telecommuting by expanding broadband and telecommunications services.