Washington State's Initiative 937 and the Environment: The Emerging Impact of Grassroots Movements on National Policy

By Trumble, Paul D. | Albany Law Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview
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Washington State's Initiative 937 and the Environment: The Emerging Impact of Grassroots Movements on National Policy


Trumble, Paul D., Albany Law Review


Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. (1)

--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

Constitutional law, seemingly dormant in the recent past, has reemerged as ballot initiatives and referendums begin to drive national policy change. Ballot initiatives have long served as a mechanism for popular state action when the controlling government fails to address pressing concerns, addresses concerns at a gradual rate that renders any action ultimately ineffective, or enacts legislation that simply fails to adequately address popular concerns. With respect to environmental reform, the latter scenario seemingly persisted in Washington. As indicated by a 2006 initiative, Washingtonians believed environmental reform was an issue worthy of more comprehensive legislation aimed specifically at combating the causes of global warming. More importantly, however, Washington's environmental initiative indicates that grassroots movements are becoming an important tool, as indicated by increased proposals before Congress, for promoting national policy change.

Washington is no stranger to leading the American charge towards environmental reform. In 2005, Washington passed renewable energy legislation that remains arguably more progressive than that existing anywhere else in the United States. The legislation, modeled after Germany's highly successful renewably energy efforts, (2) consisted of two bills. The first bill focused on driving the demand for renewable energy products by offering tax credit incentives to users of solar panels and wind power systems. (3) The second bill focused on driving the supply of renewable energy products by offering tax breaks to Washington companies producing renewable energy products. (4) Despite the highly progressive nature of Washington's renewable energy legislation, Washingtonians deemed global warming a serious problem worthy of increased legislative attention.

In November 2006, Washington passed an initiative intended to increase the use of renewable energy--Initiative 937. (5) The Initiative required the increased use of renewable energy by the state's leading electric utilities companies. (6) More specifically, the utilities companies must supply at least fifteen percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources. (7) Although the Initiative's primary purpose is to reduce global warming caused by the burning of coal and natural gas, the Initiative also boasts substantial financial savings for consumers. (8) More importantly, however, Initiative 937 represents the latest state-based effort to curtail global warming--an effort that is spreading nationally via the ballot initiative.

Washington is not the first state to address global warming through initiative--nor is it likely the last. (9) In 2004, Colorado passed Amendment 37, requiring public utilities to generate ten percent of their energy from renewable energy sources by 2015. (10) In 2006, Californians voted on Proposition 87, aimed at curtailing global warming through taxation. (11) Proposition 87 sought to address global warming by using four billion dollars in tax funds to reduce oil and gasoline usage by twenty-five percent. (12) The Proposition intended to tax California's oil producers while prohibiting the producers from passing on the tax to consumers. (13) To counter the effect of the tax, oil producers could earn incentives by incorporating alternative energy sources. (14) Though Proposition 87 ultimately did not pass, the forty-five percent in favor vote, (15) combined with the projected 2007 increases in global warming, (16) suggests that a revised environmental initiative in California is likely for 2007.

Although the passing of renewable energy initiatives in Washington and Colorado rings of success to many supporters, perhaps the revival of the initiative process, and its potential impact on national policy change, is most deserving of acclaim.

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