Editorial: Legislature should be more transparent on costs of climate change legislation

The Seattle Times editorial board urges lawmakers to make a better case for climate change legislation. It’s advice that parties on all sides of the debate should be able to endorse. 

For Washington to show leadership on climate change and build support for costly new carbon-reduction programs, the state must do a better job explaining how they’ll affect taxpayers.

The lack of clarity around costs is painful as the Legislature weighs four different proposals to reduce emissions — a carbon tax, a low-carbon fuel standard, a requirement that utilities phase out fossil-fuel energy sources and a cap-and-trade system requiring large polluters to cap emissions or buy credits to offset them.

Cost-benefit analysis makes sense, particularly with regard to regulations with clear economic consequences. As the editorial states, the proponents’ policy preferences are advanced when they earn public confidence.

…to build lasting support — and avoid a Tim Eyman-style backlash — policymakers must be transparent and forthright about the substantial household costs involved.

In a special report last September, the third in its series on manufacturing, the Washington Research Council discussed cost-benefit analysis in regulatory policy. The WRC noted Washington’s mixed regulatory record.

Regulations serve an important role in our economy, but if they are too costly, they can have a negative impact. Consequently, cost-benefit analysis of proposed regulations has long been considered a best practice. Federal regulations could cost up to $2 trillion a year, and regulations are particularly costly for manufacturers. Washington ranks poorly in interstate comparisons of state regulatory burdens.

Washington has laws that require analysis and review of regulations, and several governors have made regulatory reform a priority. Streamlining, coordination, andcommunication have been recurring themes. Efforts haven’t always delivered, though, as the State Auditor’s Office found in a recent series of performance audits.

…Still, the regulatory environment is costly, unpredictable, and untimely. An improved regulatory environment would increase the competitiveness of manufacturing in Washington.

The ST editorial acknowledges the difficulty of getting cost-benefit analysis right. Yet, this is another instance in which the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. For example,

People in dense cities are less affected by fuel costs than those in rural areas, for instance, and energy cost burdens are greater for lower-income households. The social costs of carbon pollution have long been estimated by federal agencies, to analyze policies, but are still debated.

Still, with basic price information, such as the increased cost per gallon of gas or kilowatt of electricity, people can evaluate how state proposals may affect their situation.

As legislation moves through the Legislature, some bills have cost-benefit and pricing information attached to them, but only in the out-years, after the legislation takes effect. The Times writes,

A proposal to know beforehand what the state is getting into was rejected by the Democratic majority. Auburn Republican Rep. Drew Stokesbary called for a more detailed fiscal impact analysis before the measure takes effect, but it was voted down 55 to 42.

“I would love to have the conversation where we’re just looking at facts and what’s the most efficient way to reduce carbon output,” Stokesbary said afterward.

It’s significant that the ST tends to be sympathetic to the cause, saying,

Inslee’s candidacy is a good opportunity to make climate change a top priority in the 2020 election. This would be an even stronger platform if opposition to Inslee’s previous climate proposals in Washington state was overcome with transparency, education and consensus building.

Hard to disagree with a call for a better understanding of the costs and consequences of broad regulatory initiatives.