Until the spell of climate denial breaks in the White House and the Senate, state and city governments offer America’s best hope to curb global warming. Fortunately, some states have Republican leaders who actually want to tackle the climate crisis, like Governor Charlie Baker.
The governor’s team just hashed out an innovative regional plan with the leaders of 12 Eastern seaboard states, plus the District of Columbia, to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks.
Now comes the hard part: convincing .member states to actually enact it. It’s a tough sell in rural northern New England, where New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu has already ruled out participation. But the more states that join, the more effective the plan will be. Winning buy-in from state legislatures would also help.
The goal of the program is to reduce vehicle emissions, which now account for the largest share of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. To the driver, it would work just like a gas tax, raising the price of gasoline up to 17 cents per gallon in the first year. It may seem expensive at first glance, but not compared to the continuing costs of climate change.
The proceeds, up to $5.6 billion annually for the region, would be used to provide low-carbon transportation options that vary state to state, such as public transit or electric vehicles. The Baker administration has said it intends to use a big chunk of the Commonwealth’s share, expected to be around $500 million annually, to fund the MBTA. The goal is to decrease the amount of gasoline and diesel burned in transportation, leading to reductions in transportation emissions of up to 25 percent by 2032.
The plan advanced last week, when the 13 jurisdictions released their latest draft, and invited public comment. If all goes well, most of the states will begin seeking approval in 2020.
In most of those states, turning the plan into law will involve going to their respective state legislatures for approval. Even if clearing that hurdle is technically not required in Massachusetts, the long-term prospects of the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) would be brighter if the Legislature formally enshrines it into law.
Although the public is increasingly demanding action on climate change, it remains politically risky to advocate for a measure that sounds like a new gas tax. It’s therefore smart that Baker got business groups to back TCI. But a legislative vote would deprive critics of the most powerful argument against the plan — that it amounts to taxation without representation. That was a potent line in 2014, when voters rejected a plan passed by the Legislature to link the gas tax to inflation. Even though the Legislature clearly had the authority— just as Baker may well have the authority to adopt TCI now — the electorate bristled at the move. Massachusetts does not need another referendum reversal.
It’s worth noting the TCI by itself isn’t sufficient to address Massachusetts’ transportation woes. The House of Representatives has been eyeing a potential hike to the regular gas tax, which is also urgently needed. The revenue would start flowing sooner, and would be easier to borrow against. Bill Straus, the chair of the House transportation committee, points out that the climate initiative might also be vulnerable to a constitutional challenge, since the state constitution appears to forbid spending revenue from fuel taxes on anything other than roads and transit.
For another reason to prefer a legislative vote, just look to the federal level: The Obama administration, frustrated by Congressional inaction, enacted climate and environmental policy via executive orders. The Trump administration has since reversed many of them. The issues are different for states, but it’s also true that what one governor can implement via executive authority, the next might be able to undo. That New Hampshire participated in the planning for TCI and then Sununu backed out shows that’s not a hypothetical risk.
One can’t help but see Sununu’s claim that New Hampshire gas taxes would subsidize improvements to other states’ infrastructure as nonsense. New Hampshire could use TCI money for local improvements, such as boosting existing efforts to build charging stations for electric cars, or it could use the funds to help keep fuel affordable for people with lower incomes. If surrounding states proceed with TCI, the chair of New Hampshire’s Senate Transportation Committee points out, the pollution fees may well hit regional fuel distributors that also serve New Hampshire. Their costs could then get passed onto Granite State drivers anyway. The prudent move would be to stay in TCI and get its benefits.
In the absence of federal leadership, reckoning with climate change on the regional level is smart and cost-effective. The Massachusetts Legislature and the leaders of other New England states ought to line up in support of TCI, and follow Governor Baker’s lead to make the plan stick.
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