by Davin Diaz, with analysis support from Maiko Patschke
Two years after the establishment of the Climate Commitment Act, how is the legislature fulfilling its obligations to invest in our frontline communities? Our analysis shows that in the current budget, less than seven percent of expected revenue from the program was explicitly and exclusively allocated to benefit overburdened communities when isolating for non-tribal appropriations, those not specified to Tribes or Tribal organizations. This is far short of the 35% minimum and 40% goal outlined in law for Overburdened Communities, which include Tribal Lands.
Below, the Front and Centered coalition highlights some key investments listed in the state budget as well as some of the potential false promises we’ve identified. We compare the state’s budget to California’s allocation of funds from their cap-and-trade program, which operates with a similar requirement to disperse 35% of carbon auction revenue to priority populations. Then we outline what state lawmakers and agencies should do next to fulfill the obligations of the law.
HEAL and CCA Obligations
Through the hard work of frontline communities across Washington state, the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act was passed in 2021 to prevent low-income people, communities of color, and workers from feeling the disproportionate impacts of climate change and our extractive economy. Where you live, your income, race, or language ability should not determine how healthy and safe you are from pollution. The HEAL Act establishes a goal that covered agencies must direct “40 percent of grants and expenditures that create environmental benefits to vulnerable populations and overburdened communities.”
Despite evidence that cap-and-trade has great risks and few rewards in getting major polluters to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the state passed the Climate Commitment Act (CCA) in 2021. While cap-and-trade will not bring us closer to the Just Transition we need, the CCA did adopt Front and Centered’s framework for climate investments that requires a minimum of 35% (with a goal of 40%) of auction-generated revenue to be used for investments that provide direct and meaningful benefits to frontline communities, or more specifically, “Vulnerable Populations within Overburdened Communities” (see the explainer below).
In addition, 10% of auction funds must be used for projects with the formal resolution of endorsement of Tribal Governments and may be counted towards the percentage targets. The 35–40% goal translates to well over $700–800 million of the $2 billion in CCA funds that should be directed towards Overburdened Communities in the next two years.
Allocations like $20 million for the Yakama Nation’s solar project and $13 million+ for HEAL capacity building must receive formal support to count towards the 10% Tribal requirement. Ultimately, Tribes will decide if their provision has been sufficiently realized. As such, for the purposes of this review, CCA funds that are specifically dedicated to meeting the endorsement of Tribes by an adopted resolution are not included in the funds identified in our analysis.
Understanding “Overburdened Communities” and “Vulnerable Populations”
Front and Centered generally uses the term “frontline communities” as a descriptor for communities of color, Indigenous peoples, and people with lower incomes who are hit first and worst by environmental damage and climate change. However, terms like Overburdened Communities and Vulnerable Populations are used in law, and their definitions affect which communities are targeted for resource allocation.
Therefore, while we generally avoid words like “vulnerable” and “overburdened” due to the disempowering and othering nature of such labels, they are used throughout this analysis to conform to the language of the law and will remain capitalized to signify that they are both terms of art:
Overburdened Community as defined in HEAL means a geographic area where vulnerable populations face combined, multiple environmental harms and health impacts, and includes, but is not limited to, highly impacted communities.
Additionally, the CCA defines Overburdened Community to include health impacts or risks due to exposure to environmental pollutants or contaminants through multiple pathways, which may result in significant disparate adverse health outcomes or effects. These include Highly Impacted Communities (as used in the Clean Energy Transformation Act), “Indian Country,” and populations who may face disproportionately greater health risks due to exposure to environmental contaminants and pollutants outside of the geographic area in which they reside based on their use of traditional or cultural foods and practices (such as Native Americans and immigrant populations).
Vulnerable Populations are population groups that are more likely to be at higher risk for poor health outcomes in response to environmental harms. Vulnerable populations include, but are not limited to: racial or ethnic minorities; low-income populations; populations disproportionately impacted by environmental harms; and populations of workers experiencing environmental harms.
To ensure frontline communities see the investments promised by the Washington State Legislature, Front and Centered conducted a review of the state budget for the 2023–2025 fiscal year, isolating for funds dedicated to non-governmental communities and funds not explicitly dedicated to Tribes or Tribal lands. Relying on a literal reading of the bill language, we found that only $139,310,500 (or 6.7%) of the expected $2 billion in CCA revenue has been explicitly and exclusively allocated to non-Tribal Overburdened Communities in the budget bill. An additional 4% of the funding was loosely assigned to prioritize Overburdened Communities, bringing the total to $222,172,300 or 10.7% (download our full analysis).
Less than 5% of the monies focused on people with low incomes, but no specific amounts were codified. We also identified a number of funds marked for the development of program strategies to better serve Overburdened Communities. Because these funds do not provide direct and meaningful benefits, they are not included in our analysis but instead have been labeled as “Honorable Mentions” (download our full analysis).
The Legislature Needs to be Clear and Specific
The law does require the obligations named above to be met, even if the legislature is not explicit in each budget, and the Governor’s budget proposal claimed environmental justice benefits through a number of projects and funds. Yet without specific budget language requiring monies be directed to Overburdened Communities, we could not conclude that the appropriations met the CCA requirements.
Additionally, without direction from the legislature in the adopted budgets and an accountability infrastructure, it is difficult to ensure that Overburdened Communities receive the intended benefits of and investments from the CCA funds. The budget often names Overburdened Communities as priority recipients of programmatic investments, but does not name specific spending levels. Instead, agencies are left to their own discretion. In some cases, agencies have developed detailed descriptions of how budget allocations are intended to reach Overburdened Communities, while other agencies have made no such considerations or have not made such information publicly available.
Key Investments in the Washington State Budget
Below, we highlight key investments with environmental justice implications. However, there are a number of relevant projects and funds that we do not cover in this section. To see our full analysis of the 2023–2025 budget, click here.
The Department of Health (DOH) was allocated a one-time fund of $38.6 million to develop a community-focused participatory grant program to identify and fund projects that benefit Overburdened Communities. $32.6 million is explicitly designated for projects that go to frontline communities, while the remaining balance is for DOH operations, including the assembly of five Overburdened Communities to develop and implement a participatory budgeting process.
$26.3 million was also allocated to DOH for Community Capacity Grants to help boost the participation of our frontline communities in the implementation of the HEAL Act, as well as the application of the state’s Environmental Health Disparities Map.
An investment of $300,000 was made for the Department of Commerce (Commerce) to conduct a Statewide Energy Assistance Program study in Overburdened Communities. Commerce’s Energy Utility Bill Assistance program was allocated $35 million to provide low-income households with utility bill assistance.
Of the $163 million allocated to the Home Electrification and Appliance Rebates Program (HEAR), $80 million comes from the CCA. The program is expected to benefit Overburdened Communities through grants for heat pump and other high-efficiency electric equipment rebates for low- to moderate- income households and small businesses; however no specific amount is restricted to this purpose.
Some of the funds allocated to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) have gone through an evaluation process prior to legislative consideration but are not counted in our analysis because the legislature did not specify them to benefit Overburdened Communities. Within the Transportation Budget there is just one program that explicitly directs funds to Overburdened Communities: WSDOT was provided $3 million to “develop community-centered carbon reduction strategies to make meaningful impacts in a community, and to provide assistance in gaining access to available funding to implement these strategies, where applicable.” Additionally, WSDOT may provide appropriate compensation to members of Overburdened Communities who participate and provide information to implement the program.
Another project of note is the Sandy Williams Connecting Communities Pilot Program, named after the late civil rights activist from Spokane. The budget does not explicitly direct the $25 million towards Overburdened Communities, but it does state: “Priority must be given to historically marginalized or overburdened communities.” The goal of the fund is to deliver projects that reconnect communities that have been bifurcated by state highways.
The state legislature invested $1.84 million for tracking agency expenditures of CCA dollars to demonstrate whether or not the agencies properly created “meaningful benefits to vulnerable populations within the boundaries of Overburdened Communities as described by [the law].”
The Joint Transportation Committee will conduct an evaluation of programs that receive funds from the carbon emissions reduction account, which must include “carbon emissions reduction estimates by program and by unit of time…and actionable recommendations for improvements in program delivery.”
The Department of Ecology (Ecology) and the Environmental Justice Council via DOH received a combined total of $840,000 to track agency expenditures from the CCA. The council, in coordination with Ecology, will consult and compensate vulnerable populations within Overburdened Communities and Tribes as part of the tracking process.
Additionally, Ecology is currently accepting public comment on CCA Funds Reporting Rulemaking, which will establish reporting requirements for recipients of cap-and-trade auction revenue. Front and Centered would like to see how each CCA expenditure provides direct and meaningful benefits to Overburdened Communities to reduce greenhouse gasses and environmental health disparities. Public comment is open until September 26, 2023 and we encourage you to submit your remarks.
The Washington State Department of Ecology is currently accepting public comment on how it should establish reporting requirements for recipients of cap-and-trade auction revenue. Front and Centered would like to see how these funds provide direct and meaningful benefits to Overburdened Communities to reduce both greenhouse gasses and environmental health disparities. Public comment is open until September 26, 2023 and we encourage you to submit your remarks.
Not sure what to write? Here are some of the actions that the Front and Centered coalition is calling for:
- Frequent updating of online report information, ideally at least twice a year, with at least one update being issued immediately prior to legislative session
- Use of quantitative data as well as narrative reporting based on community feedback
- Incorporation of full information on effects to frontline communities resulting from projects and programs, including, but not limited to:
- Direct and indirect benefits to frontline communities resulting from the project;
- Environmental health disparities reductions;
- Unintended adverse impacts from expenditures;
- Detailed explanation of how communities were identified, including how communities were consulted in the identification processes;
- Geographic boundaries of the communities identified and project scope;
- Which vulnerable populations were reached and their demographics; and
- How frontline communities were consulted prior to receiving funding and during program implementation
- Reporting on greenhouse gas emission reductions, community resiliency, and environmental impacts beyond carbon
- Accountability and transparency through use of clearly defined and easily tracked metrics in order to track progress over time
Many of Washington State’s investments could end up being false promises, as they mirror federal investments in ways that fail to take advantage of the state’s more flexible use of funds and develop strategies that complement what’s missing. For example, the Reducing Emissions in Hard-to-Decarbonize Sectors Program is an investment that, without community control, may end up as giveaways to major polluters who already get a free pass under cap-and-trade. Funds for ferry electrification could be met through the existing highway funds, billions of which are being used to expand highways, induce driving, and worsen pollution.
How Does Washington Compare to California?
California launched their cap-and-trade program in 2013, also requiring a minimum of 35% of California Climate Investments to benefit “disadvantaged communities and low‑income communities” to provide cleaner air, increased mobility options, greener communities, expanded access to clean energy, and new employment opportunities.
According to California’s Climate Investments 2023 Annual Report, since 2014, more than $6.7 billion, or 73%, of the implemented funds for California Climate Investments projects were directed towards priority populations as defined by California state law. Evaluating the impact of their budgeting is challenging, and frontline communities in California should have the final say on the effectiveness of their programs. However, the 73% benefits allocation can still serve as a benchmark that Washington should aim to achieve.
Additionally, California reports to have held 430 public meetings (listening sessions) for the California Climate Investments from December 1, 2020 to November 30, 2021. In contrast, we are not aware of any Washington State listening sessions explicitly held to inform CCA investments.
California has also taken a much broader approach to climate that recognizes the intersections of housing, land use, transportation, and community well-being, as compared to Washington’s more narrow focus. For example, cumulative investments in priority populations in California included:
- Affordable housing: over 10,000 affordable housing units
- Weatherization: $348 million
- Sustainable Transportation Equity Project: $28.2 million
- Low-carbon Economy Workforce Program: $55.7 million
What Must Lawmakers and Agencies Do Next
State agencies have started to prepare their supplemental budget requests for 2024, and CCA auction revenue has exceeded original estimates. The legislature must fulfill their requirements under HEAL and CCA and ensure that at least 35–40% of funds benefit Overburdened Communities. But while agencies must do their part, it does not replace the legislative duty to provide direction to achieve their commitments. Moving forward, the legislature must clearly direct each line item dedicated to benefit Overburdened Communities as explicitly going to them. Otherwise our analysis and any other rigorous analysis will always find that the funding falls short of the 40% goal.
As we near the 2024 Supplemental Budgeting Session, there are a number of opportunities to increase funding to frontline communities. These include making the Participatory Budget Grant Program an ongoing program, with the amount increasing over bienniums toward the goal of being the primary venue for benefiting frontline communities. As it currently stands, the program is intended to engage only five communities. Additionally, the state should provide funds to create Community Assemblies to support the Department of Health’s Participatory Budget Grant Program.
Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gasses in the state and the legislature must do more to reduce emissions by increasing funding for transit operating hours across the state, aiming to offer frequent accessible public transportation statewide. Funds should be aligned with the WSDOT Frequent Transit Service Study and forthcoming transit plan, which states that “expanding public transportation would improve the relative performance of the transportation system for vulnerable populations in overburdened communities, decrease carbon emissions, reduce vehicle miles traveled, lower out-of-pocket costs per trip, and improve resiliency.”
The state invested $300,000 in a Statewide Energy Assistance Program plan that should be developed by frontline communities. An allocation of at least $10 million for the implementation of the plan is also needed to reduce energy burden and provide access to energy assistance.
We expect that DOH, Ecology, WSDOT, and the Office of Financial Management will develop methodologies to identify and measure benefits of an agency program and create a comprehensive HEAL website with links to all agencies and resources as they track the effectiveness of the programs utilizing CCA funds. As Ecology creates the rules for CCA funds reporting, we expect the final requirements to demonstrate transparency in agencies’ budgeting practices and programmatic results, as well as in how agencies partnered with community.
In addition to the accountability items prescribed by law, Front and Centered encourages the state to create a scorecard for agencies required to implement HEAL, similar to the federal Justice40 Initiative Agency Scorecard.
Lastly, the law specifically directs Washington State’s Environmental Justice Council to provide recommendations to the Legislature on which projects receive CCA funding. This is extremely important as CCA revenue outpaces projections, with estimates of $1.3–1.5 billion of auction proceeds to date. Community representatives to the council—Maria Batayola, Maria Blancas, Rosalinda Guillen, Aurora Martin, Faaluaina Pritchard, Raeshawna Ware, and Community and Youth Representative Nirae Petty—should continue to provide the necessary guidance to agencies to ensure CCA implementation is effective and accountable to frontline communities.