The election results from last night have implications for environmental law and policy that we will likely fully understand after watching how the next few years play out. On a national level, Republicans regained control of the Senate, and here in Washington, it looks like Republicans will keep control of our state Senate. Both of these developments will have dramatic implications for emerging environmental laws and policies—with some similarities between what is going on in Washington and on the national stage.
Implications for Washington State
In Washington, Republicans have enjoyed a slim majority in the state Senate. As a result, Governor Inslee and others put a tremendous amount of effort into three key races, which included California billionaire Tom Steyer spending over a million dollars in support of these efforts. Governor Inslee has pursued a very aggressive environmental agenda, including his efforts to implement cap-and-trade and potentially a clean fuels standard as part of his Clean Energy Action Plan, and his efforts to reduce toxics in the environment through new legislation. Last year’s legislative session was largely uneventful with respect to major environmental legislation, and the inability of the Governor to advance his agenda was due in no small part to the Republican majority in the state Senate. The election results haven’t changed that dynamic, as tweeted by the Governor last night:
The Governor may very well be unable to implement his agenda in the next legislative session, or he could be facing a decision about doing things in an incremental fashion in a way that finds common ground with the Republican majority in the Senate. In addition, it is worth keeping an eye on the McCleary debate (for those of you not familiar with McCleary, it involves a state Supreme Court decision ordering our legislature to increase funding of basic education). Although not an environmental matter in a direct sense, what the legislature does (or doesn’t do) with respect to McCleary will undoubtedly impact funding for other programs. Either money will be stripped from other budgets to fund the McCleary mandate, or if no advances are made, the debate around McCleary has the potential to dominate this legislative session—decreasing the time and resources that can be dedicated to passing legislation regarding environmental matters.
The National Picture
The national picture is similar, although it is perhaps a more dire situation for Obama’s environmental agenda. Like Governor Inslee, President Obama has been committed to action on climate change, a centerpiece being the Clean Power Plan that EPA proposed over the summer. EPA is also in the midst of a fairly controversial rulemaking regarding the definition of “Waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act. Although President Obama obviously retains the ability to continue to pursue these types of activities through executive action, the Republican control over the Senate could mean declining to fund the EPA until the President backs off of this agenda. We could also see another run at the type of legislation introduced in the House after the Clean Power Plan was announced, although Democrats in the Senate could still filibuster such efforts.
How do the national elections influence the Pacific Northwest? Governor Inslee clearly set out to be a leader on climate action and environmental issues. To the extent the election reflects a national sentiment that is growing sour on these issues, the Governor may be left to forge ahead on his own (although that is something that has never scared the Governor or people in Washington). And, like President Obama’s new thorn in his side (the Republican-controlled Senate), Governor Inslee will go into the next legislative session with a familiar thorn in his side, the still-Republican controlled state Senate.
I’ll post more analysis and reaction by others as part of a “what we are reading” update later this week.