A new Elway Poll, in pollster Stuart Elway's words "constitutes a glimmer of hope" for a legislative transportation package this session; legislators have failed two sessions in a row now to pass a package (with house Democrats passing a ten-and-a-half cents gas tax in 2013 and the Republican-controlled senate, opposed to gas taxes, balking.)
Elway asked voters about four potential taxes to fund transportation improvements and Gov. Jay Inslee's idea of a carbon tax got a combined 70 percent between the two positive responses (45 percent favored it and 25 percent said it was acceptable), the highest of any suggestion. Inslee has proposed a $12 chit per-carbon-ton per-year on the state's biggest polluters, putting $400 million of the money toward transportation spending.
(The other Elway suggestions fared as follows: a county car tab got 53 percent support; a vehicle miles traveled tax had 41 percent support; and a gas tax had just 37 percent support. )
Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34, Burien), the house environment committee chair and transportation committee member, says he wasn't surprised by the high numbers for a carbon tax: "It's consistent with polling I've seen," he says. "Washington voters think polluters should pay for the cost of pollution. It tends to be a small group of elected leaders who oppose the tax, not the voters."
"It tends to be a small group of elected leaders who oppose the tax, not the voters."—Democratic Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon
One elected leader who doesn't seem persuaded is the senate environment chair, Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42, Ferndale), a pet of oil industry and energy industry contributors in the last election. "I don't put too much weight into that [Elway Poll]," Ericksen tells me. "We just had a pretty major poll done statewide last November, and the people of Washington state, rather overwhelmingly, they rejected this agenda."
Ericksen says polling questions are malleable. "Do people understand that it's not a tax on corporate CEO's in Houston, Texas, it's a tax on working families who want to drive their kids to soccer practice," Ericksen says, arguing that corporate taxes will get passed on to the consumer. "I don't base my policy on an Elway poll."
One part of the Elway Poll does square with Sen. Ericksen's POV, though. He believes voters won't support an increase in taxes for transportation until the legislature reforms WSDOT; the GOP wants, for example, to change union "prevailing wage" requirements on transportation projects. (Democrats gripe that they made reforms.)
"What the legislature needs to understand is that people want us to address ridiculous costs before we ask them for more money."—Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen
Ericksen said: "The people can look at a 520 bridge billion dollar cost overrun, [and] they can look at a deep bore tunneling machine stuck under Seattle, [and] they can look at roads not being built because of massive overruns—and what the legislature needs to understand is that people want us to address ridiculous costs before we ask them for more money."
The Elway Poll found that voters' resistance to transportation taxes was connected to misgivings about the Washington Department of Transportation. Elway noted: "Opinions about transportation funding were related to opinions about the transportation system and, especially about the Department of Transportation. Respondents were asked to grade the state transportation system. It received a solid 'C' average."
And Elway found that the biggest reason for the meh grade was "waste and mismanagement," with a whopping 55 percent of the biggest detractors of the transportation system (those who gave it an 'F') blaming "waste and mismanagement" for the bad grade.
Elway warns that voter support for a carbon tax shouldn't be overplayed. He concludes his poll writing: "For carbon tax proponents, 70 percent positve response is a good place to start. But the public debate over this tax has not really begun. The early rounds will be about how the tax is described."