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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial Endorsements: No on the carbon tax; yes on the grocery tax ban

Washington voters will find two tax measures on the ballot. They should reject new taxes that will hinder economic growth and every Washingtonian’s pocket book by voting no on a carbon tax and yes on a ban on grocery taxes.

A poorly written carbon tax

Initiative 1631 asks Washington voters to add billions of dollars to their utility and gasoline bills. Voters should decline.

Proponents say the tax – which they refer to as a fee, of course – would generate $2.3 billion in its first five years. But who do voters think that $2.3 billion will be generated by? They should look in the mirror.

The initiative would impose a $15 per ton tax on carbon emissions starting in 2020. That tax would go up every year until it hit $55 in 2035. At that point, lawmakers could either freeze it or vote to keep it increasing into the future.

If the initiative passes, it would be the first time in the world that such a fee was put in place by voters. That is not an accolade that Washington should want. Such a consequential action should not be put to a popular vote. If it happens, it should only happen after much study and examination by the Legislature.

This tax would put Washington businesses at an extraordinary disadvantage. Utility costs would certainly go up. And for what? There is no guarantee this would lower carbon emissions – and an almost certainty that it couldn’t do so enough to have a measurable impact on global climate change.

Like most ballot initiatives written by activists instead of lawmakers, this one lacks precision. Money raised ostensibly would go to renewable energy infrastructure and lower-income communities impacted by pollution, but the wording is vague and provides little oversight by elected officials.

Oil companies are, of course, among the main opponents since they’ll bear the brunt of the fee. Or will they? Estimates are the price of gas at the pump will go up 14 cents a gallon in the first year alone.

Without a clearer picture of what it can legitimately accomplish and far better oversight by elected officials of any spending that results, we cannot support Initiative 1631’s carbon tax and urge voters to say no.

Bring consistency to grocery taxes

Initiative 1634 would prohibit local governments from imposing any new taxes or fees on grocery items and prohibit existing taxes and fees from being increased. This is a good idea (though, again, one that should be implemented by the Legislature rather than through a ballot initiative). Washington should have consistent, statewide taxing policies on necessities like groceries.

State voters decided in 1977 that the Legislature shouldn’t tax groceries – though the definition of what exactly is included in that ban has shifted over the years with dueling legislation and initiatives, many funded by the food and beverage industry.

Local governments, though, are able to tax groceries, and many do. This hurts both consumers and businesses. One study of a beverage tax in Philadelphia found it caused job losses in retail, manufacturing and transportation. It also drove some people out of the city to buy their groceries.

Working families, who spend a disproportionate share of their income on necessities like food and housing, are hurt the most.

Grocery taxes are often targeted to change behavior – like Seattle’s recent tax on sugary beverages. We think individuals should make their own choices about such matters without government coercion or monetary punishment. Education is a far better method of reducing consumption of unhealthy food.

The alliance in favor of this initiative includes farmers, ranchers, small business owners and unions. All of these constituencies are hurt by selective local taxes on grocery items.

The initiative process often doesn’t lead to sound decision-making. It is far too often polluted by special-interest money that pays for slick advertising to drive voters based on emotion and professional persuasion rather than reason.

But in this case, Initiative 1634 would actually accomplish a worthwhile goal and bring some order and rationality to the mishmash of conflicting taxes that change depending on which community you live in. Voters should say yes to Initiative 1634.