A push to tax energy usage to help fund Denver’s efforts to fight climate change has just 46 days to collect enough signatures to refer the initiative to voters in November. But organizers are confident they can meet their goal.
“This campaign will be a sprint,” organizer Brandon Rietheimer told supporters at a campaign kickoff event at the Alliance Center on Thursday, May 23. “But that’s what it takes to overcome the climate crisis.”
A crowd of about fifty people attended the launch of the Resilient Denver campaign, which wants city voters to pass a small tax on electricity and natural gas consumption, modeled in part on Boulder’s Climate Action Plan tax. While not a true carbon tax — a type of carbon-pricing mechanism meant to heavily disincentivize the use of fossil fuels — the measure would be the first of its kind adopted by a major U.S. city.
“Denver is ready to lead on climate change,” said Rietheimer, who in 2017 led the campaign for the Green Roof initiative, a grassroots effort to require large commercial buildings to install solar panels or green space on their rooftops. Despite opposition from developers and many city leaders, voters approved the initiative, though its requirements were later substantially weakened by city council.
Resilient Denver says its energy usage tax would add about $4 a month to the average residential utility bill. About a third of Denver residents would qualify for a low-income exemption, and commercial and industrial energy users would be taxed at higher rates.
Overall, the tax would raise an estimated $47 million in its first year, which would fund a new Office of Climate Action and Resiliency to lead the city’s efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and transition to clean energy. The new revenue would represent a drastic increase in municipal funding for climate action; Mayor Michael Hancock’s 2019 budget appropriated just $379,000 for the Office of Sustainability, which currently coordinates the city’s climate efforts.
In its latest Climate Action Plan, released in 2018, Hancock's administration committed the city to a series of targets for reducing carbon emissions, including a 45 percent cut by 2030 and an 80 percent cut by 2050. But Denver's overall emissions have remained flat for much of the last decade, with small efficiency gains and added renewable-energy capacity offset by its continued growth. Barring a sharp, unexpected decline in emissions this year, the city will miss the Climate Action Plan's first goal, a 15 percent reduction by 2020.
“Even though Denver is very advanced compared to a lot of other cities, we’re still behind when it comes to meeting the greenhouse gas emissions goals that we need to meet in order to save the world,” Theron Makley, a renewable-energy advocate with Wind and Solar Denver, told the crowd at Thursday’s event.
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To craft the initiative, organizers consulted with a wide range of advocacy groups and institutions, including the City of Boulder and Xcel Energy, which would likely be responsible for collecting the tax on monthly utility bills. An Xcel spokesperson said the company would not take a position on the initiative until it qualifies for the ballot.
While organizers are confident, the requirements to make the ballot are a lot tougher than they used to be — in part, many suspect, because of the unexpected success of Rietheimer’s Green Roof initiative. A ballot question referred by Denver City Council and passed by voters last year, Measure 2B, effectively doubled the number of signatures required and pushed the deadline for submission from 90 days before the election to 120 days.
That means Resilient Denver only has until July 8 to submit the 8,265 valid signatures required to put the initiative on the November ballot. They're aiming to collect at least 17,000 signatures to be sure of approval.
“I know it’s a short timeline,” organizer Heather Stone told supporters. “But this is a crisis, and I think we all want to act as soon as we possibly can.”