Environment Is on the Ballot in Election 2016

November 1, 2016
A plastic bag ban now before California voters is just one of several controversial state ballot initiatives nationwide. (Photo: Day Donaldson, Flickr Creative Commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/thespeakernews/)

Issue Backgrounder: Environment Is on the Ballot in Election 2016

By Joseph A. Davis

The differences between GOP presidential contender Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton on environmental and energy issues are stark and well-documented — Clinton wants to continue President Obama’s climate-control plan and add more clean-energy jobs, while Trump thinks global warming is a Chinese hoax and wants to bring back coal. But in three presidential debates this fall, these topics were barely mentioned.

That doesn’t mean they won’t count on Election Day. In Congress, for instance, some races will have big environmental impact. And if control of the Senate goes to the Democrats, that will change somewhat the prospects for environmental legislation — ranging from the currently languishing energy bill to the treaty banning climate-warming HFC gases.
 
Environmentalists are certainly weighing in. For the Senate, the League of Conservation Voters is opposing incumbent Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) and backing open-seat contenders Katie McGinty (D-Pa.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.). LCV is also backing Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who is challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).
 
While odds of Democrats taking the House are still considered slim, some House races will have environmental impact, too. The LCV has so far endorsed some 83 House candidates, many of them Democrats who are predictable supporters of the environment. Still, there are horse races — one example being the challenge to House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) by long-shot Democrat Tom Wakely, who is challenging him on the climate issue. An upset here would be news.
 
Environmental issues will be in play in races for some governorships and state houses, too. An example is North Carolina, where incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory is facing a stiff challenge from Democrat Roy Cooper. The record of McCrory, a former Duke Energy executive, on coal ash is actually a big issue — but the race is not purely about the environment.
 
Coal, oil, chemical, timber and agribusiness industries spend a lot on elections.  But so do environmental groups. This year, the LCV is spending at least $40 million on all elections. Other big environmental players in electoral politics include billionaire Tom Steyer's NextGen Climate and the Sierra Club network. Checking in with such groups can add insight if you are covering environmental issues in state and local races.
 
On the ballot — bags, solar, soda
 
Pollsters and pundits have long been fond of telling us that environmental issues aren't "salient." That is, their importance does not stand out in people's minds as strongly as other issues, like jobs, terrorism, health care, immigration, guns or taxes.

But to the extent the environment will be on the ballot Nov. 8, it’s not just through the election of public officials. In at least eight states there are ballot measures that deal with energy, environment and related topics, with several of those hotly contested.

According to Ballotpedia, some 163 measures will appear on statewide ballots, although only a fraction relate to environment and energy. These include measures on plastic bags, solar energy and soda taxes (while the latter is not, strictly speaking, “environmental,” it is an important issue to the “food movement,” which takes on many environmental issues, and can also reduce soda consumption, which can affect people’s health).

Some examples:

  • Washington: The proposed carbon tax on Washington state's ballot (I-732) is meant to control greenhouse emissions in a revenue-neutral way. The big deal is that it would be the first such tax in any state — and a possible test outing for a national carbon tax (for which prospects seem poor). It may be an easier lift in a state where hydro is big and coal very small as a source of electricity. Business opposes the carbon tax, and some environmentalists would prefer a setup where proceeds go to environmental programs. Polls suggest a close vote. More from Ballotpedia and Climate Central.

  • Florida: The "solar" initiative on the Florida ballot (Amendment 1) is confusing to say the least. According to InsideClimate News, "Amendment 1 is written in pro-solar language, but it is backed by the state's utilities and opponents say it will crush the growth of solar in the Sunshine State." The electric utility companies are backing Amendment 1, and former Vice President Al Gore opposes it. More from InsideClimate News and Politifact Florida/WUSF.

  • California: Statewide, the hot ballot issue in California is a ban on free plastic bags (Proposition 67). The state's legislature passed legislation in 2014 requiring stores to charge for single-use plastic bags, but industry opponents then garnered enough signatures to put the requirement on hold and bring the question before voters via ballot measure. Approving Prop 67 would keep the ban on free bags. Supporters want to keep discarded bags from littering the landscape or ending up in landfills or the ocean. But the plastics industry and many retailers oppose the ban, saying it is inconvenient and unfair. Some 150 local jurisdictions in California have already banned bags, and the statewide ban seems to have an edge in the polls. But the issue may be confused by another bag-related initiative (Prop 65), which would require fees charged for some types of bags go into an environmental kitty. More from the San Jose Mercury News and Ballotpedia. Also hot locally are soda tax ballot measures in Oakland (Measure HH) and San Francisco (Proposition V). They are drawing big money from the beverage industry and health advocates like Michael Bloomberg. More from the East Bay Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. There is also a soda tax measure in Albany, Calif.

  • Nevada: The home solar installation industry (think Solar City) suffered a defeat in Nevada in 2015 when the electric utility industry got regulators to kill a favorable rate for home solar producers. This November, Nevada voters face a measure (Question 3) that would reverse that. But it does so by enshrining a deregulated electric market in the state's constitution. That could have myriad unpredictable effects on many parts of the energy system. More from the Reno Gazette-Journal and Ballotpedia.

  • Missouri: Missouri already has an earmark that reserves one-tenth of one percent of the revenue from a sales/use tax for purposes of soil and water conservation, state parks and historic sites. The measure (Amendment 1) on this November's ballot would continue that earmark for another 10 years, with no increase. More from VoteSmart.

  • Alabama: A ballot measure in Alabama (SB260) would, to a large degree, limit the spending of revenue generated at state parks to the sole purpose of maintenance of state parks. Current law allows spending of this money for other purposes, and the measure would (with exceptions) limit the state legislature's options. More from VoteSmart.

  • Colorado: Fracking has been a contentious issue in Colorado — but it won’t be on the statewide ballot. On August 29, Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams announced that two anti-fracking measures would not appear on the ballot because they did not have enough valid signatures (and there were allegations some signatures had been forged). In past years, several local jurisdictions had banned fracking, but the Colorado Supreme Court struck those down. More from the Denver Post, Politico, and the New York Times.

Further Resources

There are a lot more ballot issues this November than those mentioned above.

Joseph A. Davis is director of SEJ’s WatchDog Project, and writes SEJournal Online’s Backgrounders and TipSheet columns.

 

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 1, No. 1. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.