Geology & Geophysics News

Five States Put Energy and Environmental Issues on the Ballot

From banning plastic bags to regulating solar power, states across the country asked voters to make important decisions on energy and the environment.

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Last week, a handful of states asked voters several questions that relate to energy and the environment. These questions ranged from local concerns, like state park funding, to laws addressing global climate change through carbon taxes and regulations on sustainable energy.

Here’s how ballot measures shook out in five states.

1. Florida Makes Decisions on Solar Power Regulation

This year, Floridians decided that equipment used to harness renewable energy would be tax exempt. This means that the expensive equipment will not add to property taxes. In November the voters decided that the right to own the equipment and produce this energy would be protected only by existing state statutes, not by the constitution.

Solar panels on a Florida beach house are now tax-exempt.
Over the summer, voters in Florida opted to provide property tax exemptions on renewable energy equipment like the solar panels shown here. In November they chose to protect the rights to own this equipment via existing state statutes, not constitutional law. Credit: tai viinikka, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Florida mayors have been working for a while to elevate environmental issues such as climate change and sea level rise to the state and national level. Finally, in August, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, which provided tax exemptions for renewable energy equipment.

Opponents like Stop Playing Favorites argued that the amendment was unfair, favoring certain industries over others. However, the amendment received broad support; about 73% of voters voted in favor, much more than the 60% minimum required for the amendment to pass. Supporters say that this new constitutional amendment will encourage investment in solar technology and help Florida take advantage of its renewable potential.

The discussion over solar energy regulation continued on 8 November with Amendment 1, which failed to pass. The amendment would have added to the state’s constitution the right to own and lease solar energy equipment for personal use and would have created regulations to ensure that those who do not produce solar energy do not have to help subsidize it. Utility companies and Consumers for Smart Solar supported the amendment, claiming it would have protected those who didn’t choose solar energy and helped guard against scams.

Opposition, however, was widespread. Floridians for Solar Choice led the campaign against the amendment and was supported by much of the solar industry, as well as environmental groups like Earthjustice. They argued that the amendment was a cleverly worded measure intended to confuse voters; rather than supporting solar energy, it would lay the groundwork for restrictions that would penalize solar users while promising rights that Floridians already held under state statutes.

Amendment 1 was able to win just over 50% of the votes but was far short of the 60% required to add it to the state’s constitution. Thus, tax exemptions will encourage renewable energy generation, but that generation and equipment use will not be subject to any new regulations at this time.

2. California Upholds Its Ban on Plastic Bags

California voters navigated a confusing pair of propositions regarding disposable plastic bags. In 2014 the state passed Bill No. 270, which banned stores from distributing plastic bags and required them to charge for all other bags, such as paper or reusable bags.

Opponents to the bag law, including members of the bag industry, pushed to have it brought to a popular vote on the November ballot. Californians ratified the law by approving Proposition 67. This means that California can continue its plan to phase out plastic bags, a process already established in the state at the city and county level.

On the same ballot, voters struck down Proposition 65, which would have required the revenue earned from bag sales to go to a new state government fund—the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Fund—rather than to the stores selling the bags.

Supporters like Californians Against Waste claimed the bag industry, which supported 65 and opposed 67, was working to confuse voters and stave off the bag ban. They argued that the bag industry supported 65 because it would have prevented grocers and retailers from receiving any funds from the bag charges, undermining their support for 67. Further, supporters insisted that a new government fund was unnecessary to handle the small amount of revenue that would be generated and that it would not be able to do much to help the environment because plastic bags would have to be eliminated entirely for a positive environmental outcome.

The results were close, especially for Proposition 67, which passed 52% to 48%. As a result, retailers across the state are now banned from distributing plastic bags to consumers, and any revenue from other bags will go directly to retailers to cover the costs of providing recyclable or reusable bags.

3. Alabama Addresses State Park Funding

DeSoto Falls in DeSoto State Park, Alabama.
DeSoto Falls in DeSoto State Park, Ala. Because of the decision made in the 2016 election, the Alabama legislature will no longer be able to reallocate funds from the state parks budget to other purposes. Credit: Jody Claborn

Voters in Alabama chose to ratify an amendment that would protect the allocation of state park funds. The amendment, known as Amendment 2, passed with 80% of the vote.

In previous years, the Alabama State Legislature reallocated funds from the state parks budget (mainly from guest revenues, which make up about 90% of park funding) to other agencies. The lack of funding caused five parks to close and others to limit their services.

State parks balance the dual obligations of preserving natural resources and educating visitors about the value of these resources. Supporters said that this amendment was necessary to protect state parks for future generations.

Those who opposed the amendment point to the second stipulation, which allows private rather than state management of hotels, golf courses, and restaurants. They claim these outside companies will increase entrance fees, restricting park access.

4. Nevada Opens Energy Markets

During this election cycle, Nevada voters took a first step to adding an open energy market to their state’s constitution. Nevadans were presented with Question 3, an amendment that would reduce energy market regulations and prohibit energy monopolies. Question 3 passed this round of voting 73% to 28% and must be approved by popular vote again in 2018 to be added to the constitution.

Supporters such as Nevadans for Affordable Clean Energy Choices argued that the measure gives Nevadans options to choose more affordable energy or clean energy, allowing the state to keep up with technological and energy advances. Support was funded primarily by the Las Vegas Sands Corp.

Groups like No Handouts to Billionaires and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers opposed the measure, saying it will cause energy rates to rise and fluctuate, hurting poorer families and cutting jobs. NV Energy, which controls 90% of the state energy market, has remained neutral and has expressed its willingness to adapt moving forward.

If the amendment passes the second round of voting in 2018, it would open the energy market and eliminate energy monopolies, which supporters say would allow Nevada residents more freedom in choosing an energy provider.

5. Washington Rejects Tax Exemption Cap on Alternative-Fuel Vehicles and Statewide Carbon Tax

This month, voters in Washington State cast an advisory vote on House Bill 2778, which set a cap on a tax exemption available to those leasing or buying alternative-fuel vehicles. The bill has already passed; this vote is an after-the-fact advisory that legislators are not bound to follow.

Electric car at a charging station.
An electric car at a charging station. Washington voters recommended that a cap on tax exemptions for alternative-fuel vehicles be repealed. Credit: Kārlis Dambrāns

Those supporting House Bill 2778 claimed that it closes existing loopholes while creating incentive to sell and purchase electric vehicles, which are often cost prohibitive. Opponents argued that it would favor some companies over others and could drive business out of the state. Voters ultimately advised that the bill be repealed.

Washington voters also decided against enacting a statewide carbon tax. The proposal, Initiative 732, would have imposed a tax on carbon emissions that started at $15 per metric ton of emissions and increased by about 3.5% each year until it reached $100 per metric ton. To compensate for the tax increase, the state would have reduced sales tax and other taxes and increased the Working Families Tax Credit for low-income families. This, they said, would have resulted in a roughly revenue-neutral plan.

The plan was designed to be revenue neutral to appeal to conservatives and increase its chances of being applied to other states. However, it instead caused debate among those with more liberal leanings.

The group Yes on I-732 led support efforts, arguing that the tax would reduce carbon emissions because potential emitters would have an incentive to reduce carbon output. Plus, they said, the tax funds would go back to Washington’s citizens. Opposing groups, including No on 732 and the Washington State Democratic Party, said the tax would make existing options more expensive without providing a route to new ones. Further, they argued, Washington already had low emissions, rendering the tax unnecessary.

Environmental groups were divided. Audubon Washington supported the measure, but other agencies like the Sierra Club chose a “Do Not Support” position because the initiative did not address the needs of low-income and minority communities that would be most affected by climate change. They also noted that the revenue-neutral plan could actually become revenue negative, taking money away from other government efforts like schools and parks.

If the initiative had passed, Washington State would have been the first state to have levied a carbon tax on its residents. However, the initiative failed, 41% to 59%.

What other environmental initiatives were decided in your city, county, and state this month? Let us know in the comments below.

—Elizabeth Jacobsen, Staff Writer

Citation: Jacobsen, E. (2016), Five states put energy and environmental issues on the ballot, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO062905. Published on 15 November 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • davidlaing

    Voting down the carbon tax was a wise choice, largely because despite its widespread acceptance, there is actually no hard-data-based confirmation of the theory that CO2 causes warming, and at least two such studies have shown the theory to be incorrect. Acceptance of a theory that is unproven by hard data is bad science, and acceptance of a theory that has been disproven by hard data is even worse. For a discussion of this, Google “Interesting Climate Sensitivity Analysis.”