After last week’s article, readers may be worried that Washington’s Constitution, like Oregon’s, protects all revenue from taxes and fees on gasoline for the State Highway Fund.
Washington’s State Constitution, like Oregon’s, does dedicate revenue from taxes and fees on motor vehicle fuels to highways, roads, and bridges. But unlike Oregon’s, Washington’s constitutional provision is narrow. Wisely, the Evergreen State constitution’s 18th Amendment requires revenue from fees “intended to be used for highway purposes” (emphasis added) to be used for such, but makes clear that taxes and fees that were “not levied primarily for highway purposes” (emphasis added) do not have to be used for such. That makes sense.
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Because the primary purpose of a carbon tax or fee is to hold polluters accountable for their pollution, not to raise money for highways, the Washington Constitution does not require the state to spend pollution revenue on highways. Washington groups fighting for a pollution fee or tax may legally earmark the revenue to tax breaks or investments in energy efficiency, electric cars, and forests.
In 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court unanimously held that a fee levied on motor vehicle fuels for the purpose of cleaning up hazardous waste did not have to be used for highways because the revenue was “never intended to be used for highway purposes” and was always intended to be used for hazardous waste cleanup. The Court specifically pointed out that Oregon’s constitutional “language is much different from” Washington’s. It is clear beyond a doubt that “article II, section 40 does not bar the implementation of a new tax for the purpose of cleaning up hazardous substances,” so it should be a slam dunk that Washington voters can approve a new tax or fee for the purpose of preventing and cleaning up climate change pollution, and the money need not flow to the Highway Fund.
That’s one hurdle cleared away from Washington’s efforts to put a price on carbon pollution and put the revenue to good use for everyday Washingtonians.