Jerry Cornfield

(Washington State Standard) The November ballot could be the next battleground in the fight over Washington’s march toward ending natural gas use in homes.

Key players behind three Republican-backed initiatives state voters are already set to decide are close to launching an all-out effort for a fourth, aimed at blocking the state’s shift away from natural gas and toward technology like heat pumps.

They are working to assemble the means and the money to gather hundreds of thousands of signatures in less than two months to qualify the measure for the ballot.

But for now, they are hung up in court, unable to get started with the signature-gathering effort, as environmental groups that favor the state’s path on energy policy challenge their proposals.

“This issue is white hot,” said state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen. “But time is tight.”

In addition to working through the court dispute, Walsh and others must decide which of four pending initiatives they want to proceed with.

Walsh, chair of the state Republican Party, is the author of three proposed initiatives focused on repealing a new state law meant to hasten Puget Sound Energy’s transition away from natural gas.

The Building Industry Association of Washington is sponsoring one too. It repeals provisions of the new law, then goes further to bar the state and local governments from “banning, restricting or disincentivizing the use of natural gas in new or existing home or commercial buildings.”

BIAW’s measure, Initiative 2066, states the Washington energy code – adopted by the state Building Code Council –  “may not in any way prohibit, penalize, or discourage the use of gas for any form of heating, or for uses related to any appliance or equipment, in any building.”

To get a measure on the ballot, supporters must submit signatures of at least 324,516 registered voters by 5 p.m. July 5. It is recommended that at least 405,000 signatures be turned in to allow for invalid signatures.

But backers of the natural gas measures cannot circulate petitions due to legal challenges from environmental groups. Climate SolutionsWashington Conservation Action and NW Energy Coalition are contesting the wording of the ballot title and description for all of them.

The three filed by Walsh cleared a final legal hurdle Thursday. But he’s waiting to see what happens with the BIAW proposal. A Thurston County Superior Court judge could resolve the skirmish by May 15, giving sponsors roughly seven weeks before the July 5 deadline.

A BIAW official said no decisions on next steps will be made until the ballot title is settled.

Ever-confident, Walsh acknowledged hard decisions are coming.

“We’ll need to consolidate efforts around one [measure] because we must do in seven or eight weeks what we had months to do in 2023,” Walsh said, referring to signature-gathering for the already-qualified initiatives concerning the state capital gains tax, long-term care benefit program, and climate law.

In 2012, a coalition of Washington education groups filed its charter school initiative in late May. A ballot title challenge for Initiative 1240  took until mid-June to resolve. Organizers needed 241,000 signatures and turned in 357,352 by the July 6 deadline.

Opponents’ legal maneuvering is a delay tactic, Walsh said

Lauren McCloy, policy director for NW Energy Coalition rejected that claim.

“That is not the reason. They’re entitled to their opinion,” McCloy said. “We think that the titles need to be more clear and informative to voters” to fully understand what each seeks to do.

‘Neutral wording’

For each initiative, the state attorney general’s office drafted a 10-word “statement of subject, 30-word “concise description” and 75-word “ballot measure summary.” The environmental groups are offering alternative language for the court to adopt.

On Thursday, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Mary Sue Wilson finalized wording for Walsh’s proposed initiatives: 20522053 and 2054. Some tweaks were made in all three.

State attorneys wrote that each measure “concerns energy and large combination utilities.” Wilson revised language in all three to read “concerns repealing a law relating to energy and large combination utilities.”

With Initiative 2066, the BIAW measure, foes are seeking significant rewriting.

In a legal filing, their attorneys ask Thurston County Superior Court Judge Allyson Zipp to amend the subject statement from “concerns natural gas regulations” to “concerns repealing and prohibiting requirements to decarbonize and promote electrification.”

Opponents contend the concise description needs amending too.

It now reads: “This measure would repeal or prohibit certain state and local laws and regulations that restrict or discourage gas use, and would require utilities and local governments to provide natural gas to eligible customers.”

Environmental groups propose it read: “This measure would repeal or prohibit certain state and local laws and regulations that promote decarbonization and electrification, and would restrict the ability of certain utilities and local governments to regulate gas.”

“Our clients believe that there is certain wording that will be more favorable to rejection of the initiatives. But it still must be neutral wording,” said attorney Paul Lawrence of the Pacifica Law Group, a veteran of ballot title face-offs who is representing the three environmental groups.

In a statement, BIAW said it supports the language drafted by the attorney general’s office.

“It clearly describes what the initiative is trying to accomplish and that’s protecting natural gas as an energy choice for the millions of families and businesses who count on it for cooking, heating and power,” the statement says. “The challengers’ proposed title and brief description is not only confusing, but also inaccurate.”

State attorneys will file their response to opponents’ proposed changes on Monday. Zipp is slated to hold a hearing May 15 and could issue a decision then.