- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2018

The budding bipartisan conversation on carbon taxes has stalled, with virtually no movement from Republicans in Congress and one of the most liberal states in the nation unable to push a carbon bill through its legislature.

Washington state’s inability to enact a carbon tax last week — the second setback in 18 months after voters in 2016 rejected a ballot initiative that would’ve put a carbon pricing scheme in place — was a sobering reminder that the issue remains highly divisive, even in left-leaning states. State lawmakers ended up a handful of votes short in their drive to tax carbon pollution, which has become a top priority for Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat.

While specialists say the state’s specific proposal had flaws, it appears to be indicative of a broader issue at the national level. Despite a major offensive from progressive governors and respected elder statesmen in the Republican Party such as former Secretary of State James A. Baker, policymakers on Capitol Hill haven’t budged, and few members of the GOP are willing to publicly even entertain the idea.

Carbon tax proponents now concede their hopes for a major breakthrough in the near future haven’t materialized.

“I’ve really had to recalibrate my time frame, and that’s discouraging,” said Charles Komanoff, director of the Carbon Tax Center, which promotes the idea of taxing carbon and tracks the issue nationwide. “We have written off the Republican Party. Yeah, there was a flurry of interest roughly a year ago … But it has not attracted, to my knowledge, a single Republican officeholder, and it’s not for want of trying.”

Indeed, the “flurry” of enthusiasm in early 2017 came from the Climate Leadership Council, which boasted leaders such as Mr. Baker, George Shultz, Henry Paulson, and a host of other Republicans. Their “carbon dividends” plan, designed to rein in fossil fuel emissions linked to climate change, would tax carbon emissions at the source, beginning at $40 per ton, and then return the proceeds to American citizens each month.

The proposal garnered a great deal of attention after its release 13 months ago, and Council leaders insist they’re making progress even though the issue is all but dead in Congress.

“Behind the scenes on Capitol Hill — I’m not able to give you specifics — but there’s considerable interest in our line of thinking among high-ranking elected officials of both parties,” said Ted Halstead, the Council’s founder and CEO. “There’s little doubt momentum on all fronts is moving in this direction.”

But there are negative signs, too. In the House, five Republican members of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus are retiring this year, taking the total number of Republicans on the panel from 33 to 28. The group doesn’t explicitly advocate a carbon tax, though its goal is bipartisan cooperation on climate change and environmental issues.

Powerful Republicans who in the past have expressed support for taxing carbon seem to have become less outspoken. The office of Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and one of the few leaders in his party who’s publicly backed the idea, referred questions on the issue elsewhere.

Committee chairs and other leading Republicans have all but written off the idea, though Mr. Halstead believes the winds could soon shift.

“It’s a question of when,” he said. “My best guess to the ‘when’ is the 2020 cycle.”

In the meantime, the best hope for carbon tax advocates are state-led efforts. No state in the nation currently has a direct tax on carbon, though many Democratic governors back the notion.

In Washington last week, Mr. Inslee threw his weight behind a bill to tax pollution, but it failed to get enough votes in the Democrat-controlled Senate to even bring it to the floor for a vote.

“On the arc of history, we’re not quite far along enough on the arc,” the governor said after the defeat. “That day will come but it wasn’t quite here yet.”

Analysts say it’ll take a successful carbon tax push in Washington and other states before the idea gains any real traction at a federal level.

“I don’t think the federal government will take the initiative on this unless we know how these things are dealt with on the state level,” said Aparna Mathur, a scholar in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute who studies carbon taxes.

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