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Carbon tax will not be on ’14 ballot

A proposed carbon tax would have added several cents to the cost of a gallon of gas.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

A proposed carbon tax would have added several cents to the cost of a gallon of gas.

A group of environmentalists has dropped its campaign to place a so-called carbon tax on the next statewide ballot, citing the complexity of the issue, weak fund-raising, and potential constitutional challenges to the question.

The group, the Committee for a Green Economy , had hoped to place a question on the 2014 ballot asking voters to approve a new tax on gasoline, heating oil, and other fossil fuels based on the amount of carbon dioxide they produce, with the aim of reducing pollutants that contribute to climate change. The committee, however, failed to file a petition with Attorney General Martha Coakley by Wednesday’s deadline, the first step in qualifying an initiative for the ballot.

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Thirty-three petitions were filed with Coakley, proposing laws that would require employers to provide sick leave, repeal the recently enacted sales tax on software services, raise the minimum wage, and address a variety of other issues. If Coakley certifies the questions as meeting constitutional requirements, supporters must then gather nearly 69,000 signatures to qualify them for the ballot.

Gary Rucinski of Newton, a cofounder and chairman of the Committee for a Green Economy, said the group did not believe it had sufficient time to build an organization and raise the money needed to win what would undoubtedly be a tough campaign.The committee has not yet filed a financial report with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and Rucinski would not disclose how much money the group has raised.

He also said the question faced potential constitutional problems since it contained two parts: adopting the tax and directing how it would be spent. The Massachusetts Constitution requires initiatives be limited to one issue, with one yes-or-no decision.

“If it had been a simple question — changing a rate here or there — it might have been doable, but this is not a simple question. It’s a complicated policy issue,” Rucinski said. “Short of some angel coming in and funding this thing to the tune of six figures or so, it was going to be a long shot doing this in 2014.”

Rucinski’s group was proposing a tax that would add several cents to the price per gallon of gas and generate as much as $2.5 billion in revenues a year, according to an economic analysis done for the group. The money would be used for transportation improvements and to reduce corporate, personal, and sales taxes.

Rucinski said the committee will seek to place nonbinding advisory questions on the 2014 ballot to gauge support for a carbon tax, a process which requires significantly fewer signatures. If there appears tobe solid support, Rucinski said, his group would aim to place a binding question on the 2016 state ballot — if the Legislature doesn’t approve a carbon tax before then.

Representative Thomas P. Conroy, a Democrat from Wayland, and Senator Michael Barrett, a Democrat from Lexington, have filed carbon tax legislation.

Robert Rio, senior vice president at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a trade group, said the carbon tax proposed by the committee would hurt the economy more than help the environment, increasing costs on businesses while having little impact on what is a global problem. He said the business community would welcome the chance meet with carbon tax proponents and state officials “to show them how much good work is already being done.”

Massachusetts has adopted some of the most aggressive greenhouse gas laws in the country. The 2008 Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act targets an 80 percent reduction of 1990 greenhouse gas levels by 2050.

Susan Reid, Massachusetts director of the nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation, said while there are benefits to a carbon tax, the biggest priority should be on implementing the climate change laws already on the books.

“A carbon tax is one viable way of addressing and accounting for the actual costs we’re paying for reliance on fossil fuels, but there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it,” she said. “So it’s actually a relief that these people are taking the time to pursue a thoughtful approach.”

Emily Overholt can be reached at emily.overholt@globe.com. To find her on Twitter follow @emilyoverholt.
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