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Denver council committee votes to advance carbon tax, climate change office proposals to full body

Vote to advance came after objections from mayor, some councilors
Posted: 1:56 PM, Aug 13, 2019
Updated: 2019-08-13 21:47:01-04
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DENVER – After a contentious meeting Tuesday afternoon, the Denver City Council’s Finance and Governance Committee voted to advance a carbon tax proposal and a proposed new office dedicated to climate change to the full council.

But the measures – particularly the carbon tax proposal – received intense scrutiny from several of the committee members at the meeting, telling the bill’s supporters and sponsor Council President Jolon Clark that they still had a litany of questions about the stakeholder process, why certain facets had not been included and why the measures had changed since they saw the first drafts last week.

In the end, the committee voted down, 4-3, a motion to table the final committee vote for one week from Councilwoman Robin Kniech, who had said in a final plea: “We are not under a gun with no options.”

But after Clark told the committee that killing the vote to advance on Tuesday would kill any chance of the measure being placed on the 2019 ballot, the committee voted to advance both measures.

The motion to advance the carbon tax proposal passed 4-3, with committee members Kendra Black, Kniech and Debbie Ortega voting against advancing it. The three were also the most critical of the measure Tuesday.

“It just feels like there was a rush to get this in front of us,” Ortega said. “And I’m concerned that there is going to be strong opposition to it and it will hurt some of the things we have been working toward.”

Kniech objected to the way the measure was put together and what she saw as some omissions, including the lack of a job quality standard and an outline of what businesses might be exempt from the carbon tax, to which Clark said he would address her concerns and others.

The committee voted 6-0 to advance the climate change office measure to the full council, with Kniech abstaining.

The measures will now get a public hearing and a full council vote later this month.

The carbon tax proposal would go to Denver voters on the Nov. 5 ballot if it passes the full council.

The carbon tax would apply to commercial and industrial buildings in Denver. Electricity would be taxed at 0.6 cents per kilowatt of electricity and 7 cents per therm of natural gas. The other bill would establish the Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency.

Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock urged council members to delay action on the proposal and said he was already working to create a new office dedicated to climate change.

Hancock did so in a letter to the council members Tuesday, telling the proponents of the two measures that he shared their goal of fighting climate change quickly but saying that he also had concerns about the stakeholder process.

“Deeply concerning … is that these proposals have not benefitted from a true community and stakeholder engagement process, from a public and transparent analysis of costs and potential unintended consequences, and from a meaningful effort to build a coalition of supporters,” Hancock wrote to the council. “I cannot stress enough the importance of engaging all segments of our community in this conversation, including low-income families, small businesses and those who may shoulder the burden of additional costs.”

A group of some of the largest business groups and unions, including Xcel Energy, on Monday sent a similar letter to the council members urging them to slow down and include the consortium in the drafting process.

Hancock’s letter to the council appeared to note that group’s concerns.

“Our Climate Adaptation and 80x50 Climate Action plans are prime examples of our leadership, as are Energize Denver, Green Buildings, 100 percent renewable electricity, vehicle electrification and the expansion of citywide recycling and composting. In most cases, these policies and programs were developed with significant public input and in partnership with the community,” Hancock wrote.

“And while we do not always agree with Xcel Energy, we are fortunate to be served by perhaps the most progressive energy utility in the nation,” he added.

Seven council members announced last week they are sponsoring the bills. The proponents said they are moving quickly on the measures because of the dire threats of climate change and their hope to get the council-referred measure on the November ballot.

“If we had another option, I would love to go back and do this slowly,” Clark told Denver7 on Monday. “We don’t have the luxury of time. We don’t have the luxury of saying the right things and not taking action.”

They said the carbon tax would generate about $43 million each year that the city would use to create grants and incentive programs for Denver businesses and residents to improve their energy efficiency. The proponents also said that the proposal would include a rebate for small businesses that have trouble paying the new tax.

Clark said at Tuesday's meeting the tax collection would go into effect on July 1, 2020, if the council and voters approve the tax.

He said that many small businesses would face a tax of between $15 and $21 per month under the tax and estimated a tax of just under $9,000 per month for Republic Plaza, $450 per month for a Denver hotel, and about $770 per month for the King Soopers on Colorado Blvd.

But Hancock, in saying the council should slow down on Tuesday, said that the council members should glean information from upcoming presentations from the climate, environmental and sustainability teams as they develop their new proposals. He also offered other options in asking council members to delay their measures.

He asked that they talk to stakeholders, review funding needs and understand the costs of the projects and possibly push a ballot question off to November 2020 instead.

“The goal will be to arrive at a consensus proposal to significantly enhance and accelerate Denver’s climate work by June 2020, including a possible measure for referral to the November 2020 ballot,” he wrote.

He also said that he was in the process of creating a new Office of Climate, Resiliency and Sustainability within the city’s Department of Public Health and Environment who would be led by an appointee who will be part of his cabinet.

Finally, he said he was speaking with Gov. Jared Polis, working to include efforts to decarbonize Denver in his budget and telling his agency heads to work to accelerate purchases of electric vehicles, require new buildings to meet net-zero energy and carbon emission standards and address contracts for city facilities.

“In closing, I share Council’s desire to act boldly and swiftly. I believe we can be both bold and swift by working together, engaging our community and addressing the many questions and concerns about the two proposed bills before you,” the mayor wrote. “I believe we can lead the nation in addressing climate change and engaging our community. For the sake of our children and future generations to come, you have my commitment to a meaningful partnership that achieves real and lasting change.”

Kniech floated an idea to push the carbon tax measure off for the 2020 ballot instead but to get the office measure passed, saying if the mayor vetoed the measure or voters disliked it should it hit the ballot and be voted down, it might hinder the council’s ability to address climate change.

“I don’t believe we’re likely to get a second bite at the apple,” she said, though she added: “There is nothing in this that is not salvageable and fixable.”

Clark, in the face of Kniech wanting to delay, said public comment for the measure would be scheduled for Aug. 26 and said the final council vote could be delayed afterward if members still don’t feel they are ready to vote.

“This is also not a decision of delay today or go and lose. I would urge action,” he said. “Let our citizens have a voice in the process as well.”