Gov. Inslee's $7,500 Electric Car Rebate Remains Uncertain in Washington Legislature


The fate of a $100 million proposal by Gov. Jay Inslee to dramatically expand incentives for Washington residents to purchase electric vehicles remains uncertain as legislators scrutinize it.

House and Senate legislators are deciding if, and in what form, to include the measure in their operating budgets for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The state payments up to $7,500 would be coupled with federal tax credits in place of up to $7,500 for some vehicles. And they come amid debate in Washington state and elsewhere about how to structure such incentives to best maximize the amount of carbon emission reductions they achieve.

"If we're going to invest that kind of money in electric vehicle rebates, we want to make sure that is helping people who would not otherwise want, or be able, to do this," said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, who chairs the House Environment & Energy Committee.

The proposal Inslee released in December would offer one year of rebates to motorists who go electric, and could set a template for future rebates. The intent is to drastically speed up the transition to electric vehicles as the state tries to meet ambitious goals of slashing carbon emissions emitted by fossil fuels to net zero by 2040, and to include more low-income people in the transition.

Washington residents who buy a new electric or fuel cell vehicle could get a $7,500 check from the state government. They could receive a $5,000 check to purchase a used electric vehicles and $1,000 for an electric bike.

The incentives also would extend to those leasing vehicles, and people who are making 60% or less of the median income could be eligible for an additional $5,000 low-income rebate, according to Anna Lising, an energy policy adviser who works in the governor's office.

The new eligible cars could cost up to $55,000 for sedans, and up to $80,000 for vans, trucks and SUVs, according to Lising.

"We envision a program that would go through the Department of Commerce where you show proof of the transaction, and if you are also offering for the additional low-income incentive, proof that you qualify for that," Lising said.

The details would be worked out once a budget item makes it through the Legislature.

Fitzgibbon said he expected legislators will consider whether income eligibility thresholds should be adjusted as well as the maximum selling prices for vehicles that could be acquired under the program. "House members will be looking to maximize the benefits for low-income car buyers," Fitzgibbon said.

Matthew Metz, co-executive director of Coltura, a nonprofit pushing to move off fossil fuel cars, said that Inslee's proposal is a big step in the right direction. But he said incentives  should be reworked to target the biggest users of gasoline and fossil fuels.

A study released last year by Coltura found that 10% of drivers, dubbed "superusers," burn 32% of the gasoline in the U.S., more than the bottom 60% combined.

Many of the superusers spend upward to 20% of their household income on gasoline, according to the report.

More carbon-cutting legislation

Some of the legislative efforts to cut carbon emissions are focused on fossil fuel use in buildings. The House on Saturday approved a bill to revise the state building codes. Changes would pick up the pace at which new buildings improve energy efficiency and reduce their consumption of fossil fuels.

By 2033, under House Bill 1770, the state code would require construction to result in an 80% reduction in energy use from the code adopted in 2006, Lising said.

Another energy bill that cleared the Senate on Saturday would toughen performance standards for existing buildings of more than 20,000 square feet to reduce their carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Senate Bill 5722 would require the Department of Commerce to develop these standards.

"Buildings have an average life span of 50 to 100 years, so we can't just wait for them to turn over, and then whatever new building we replace it will be efficient. We've got to make sure that we're improving efficiency now," Lising said.

Recycling bill dies

One high-priority bill for environmentalists died earlier this month.

Senate Bill 5697, which sought an ambitious overhaul of Washington's waste and recycling system, died after running into opposition from the American Forest & Paper Association, the American Chemistry Council and the trade association representing the state's solid waste industry.

The bill's fate in the short legislative session was determined last weekend, when it failed to gain a vote before the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

"We did quite a bit of negotiating, and we were hoping that some of the major players would get to be more comfortable with it, and they didn't," said Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, a major backer of the bill. "We are absolutely going to bring it back next year."

Senate Bill 5697, introduced by Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, was designed to boost recycling rates in Washington, which have declined during the past decade to 48.5% even as costs have increased. It would have shifted the burden of curbside recycling from consumers to packaging producers, and required, over time, all packaging and paper products sold in Washington to be designed for reuse, recycling or composting.

Some of the opposition came from groups who wanted a more narrowly focused bill on plastics, which have emerged as a global pollution crisis fouling waterways and oceans.

"We only support extended producer responsibility for materials that do not already have robust markets. In this case, that's problematic plastics," said Vicki Christopherson, representing the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association, in testimony last month before the state Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee.

Craig Smith, director of the trade association Food Northwest, said it would have the unintended consequence of raising the costs of grocery story products, and would put pressure on manufacturers to "deviate" from packaging that is "integral to food safety."

Pam Clough, of Environment Washington, noted that numerous changes were made in the bill that passed out of that Senate committee.

Clough said that "as long as companies have no responsibility for where their products and packaging ends up, they are going to keep using wasteful materials that pollute our environment."