Cornfield: Gov. Inslee still seeking ‘signature’ achievement

These days Jay Inslee might be America’s most frustrated governor. And we may soon find out how much more frustration — and stomachache — he can take.

These days Jay Inslee might be America’s most frustrated governor. And we may soon find out how much more frustration — and stomachache — he can take.

He wrote a book on the clear and present danger presented by carbon and its gaseous relative, carbon dioxide, to alter climate, and various means by which to combat those potent forces.

Yet well into his third year at the state’s helm, the Democratic governor is still without a signature policy achievement in his personal and political crusade. That’s got to smart for a true believer with his green bonafides.

The winless streak is not for lack of effort. He’s simply been foiled by members of his party as well as his GOP opponents.

This year Inslee boldly proposed a cap-and-trade auction system intended to generate billions of dollars while simultaneously forcing the state’s largest polluters to curb emissions of damaging pollutants.

But the pragmatic leader of the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican majority in the Senate stymied Inslee, providing the rookie executive an instructive reminder of the difficulty of legislating big ideas in Olympia.

Inslee also desires to see the state adopt a new rule requiring cleaner burning, low-carbon fuels. He could bypass lawmakers and order this be done by executive order but he’s thus far refrained.

Republicans hate this idea. To preemptively thwart him, they tacked a provision onto the $16 billion transportation revenue package that said if he goes forward with the low-carbon fuel standard, then over time about $700 million would be shifted out of accounts for buses, bike paths and sidewalks and instead directed toward road projects.

Inslee calls it a “poison pill” but signed the transportation bill anyway. He is now considering swallowing that pill and spent the past week gauging opinions of others in what aides describe as a “listening tour.”

David Postman, Inslee’s communications director, said the governor does not have a timetable for a decision.

“The governor is exploring whether it is possible to make progress on fighting carbon pollution and fund multi-modal projects,” he said in an e-mail. “He’s met with lawmakers, transit and bike advocates, seniors, environmentalists, business people and others.”

Those meetings began in earnest July 16 — the day after the bill signing — during a conference call with liberal Democrats including Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, and Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island.

That same day he spoke with Democrats involved in crafting the transportation package, including Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, and Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.

Since then, Inslee’s met or spoken with the King County executive, Seattle mayor, transit and biking advocates, environmentalists and labor leaders.

On Tuesday, Inslee met in Seattle with representatives of cities, counties and ports. He also spoke with leaders of the Association of Washington Business, and, in separate phone calls, with Republican Sens. Curtis King of Yakima and Joe Fain of Auburn.

Participants are reluctant to share details of the talks. Some say they are convinced Inslee’s made up his mind to swallow the pill. Others believe he’s thoroughly balancing the costs and benefits.

Several people, including Democratic lawmakers, reportedly told Inslee not to do it. They argued that he amassed valuable political capital by appearing to set aside his agenda when he signed the bill with the GOP provision. All that goodwill disappears if he decides to seek a new fuel standard, they said.

Backers of expanded bus service and bike ways fumed at Inslee for simply bringing up the idea. It took three years of negotiations to get a package passed and they stand to lose millions of dollars if he goes forward.

And there’s a political element, too. If Inslee proceeds, the debate on a fuel standard is injected into the 2016 legislative session — where Republicans certainly will attempt to stop him — and the elections.

It may not hurt his re-election but it might damage incumbent House Democrats in rural areas and swing districts. If a couple of them are unseated, Democrats would lose control of the House because it’s that close.

On the other hand, what’s Inslee got to lose at this point? He’s made no headway on the centerpieces of his climate change crusade. He can’t get enough Democrats to promise they’ll go to the mat on his behalf in 2016.

If he must do it alone, why not go for it and draw a bright line in the political sands — if he’s got the stomach for it?


Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at Contact him at 360-352-8623; and on Twitter at @dospueblos.