Is Capitol a hazard for golf?

February 1, 2011 

To say Heather Hansen is a golf lobbyist is the truth, but not the whole truth.

It might even be fair to ask if there’s really a such thing as a “golf lobbyist”?

Hansen is a contract lobbyist, a registered member of the so-called Third House that sets up shop in Olympia when the Washington State Legislature is in session. Right now, when lawmakers are in town, is when she earns her pay.

Her clients, most of them, are professional associations related to agriculture – Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, the Washington State Fairs Association, the Cattle Producers of Washington, to name a few.

The business of agriculture, to adapt a phrase, is business. The golf industry is no different.

“Golf courses are fundamentally small businesses,” Hansen said.

For many golf courses, revenues are way down, so issues such as taxes and the cost of unemployment insurance are as pressing as for any business.

Hansen, of Olympia, comes by her agriculture connections honestly. She grew up in 4-H and FFA, and went on to get a Bachelor of Science in animal science and a master’s in adult and continuing education, with an ag emphasis, from Washington State University. She worked as a county extension agent through Utah State University and the University of Arizona.

If the primary definition of agriculture is the growing of cash crops, golf is not agriculture.

But golf courses are about growing things, especially grass, so when the Legislature turns its eyes to lawns and turfgrass, Hansen goes on alert.

Last week, the state Senate’s environment, water and energy committee had a first hearing on Senate Bill 5194, which would protect the water quality of lakes by restricting the use of lawn fertilizers containing phosphorus.

Proponents of the bill (including Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County, among its broad list of sponsors) are a coalition of environmental groups headed by the Washington Environmental Council.

The bill says lawn fertilizer contributes to excess phosphorus in surface waters, which can stimulate the growth of weeds and algae and have toxic environmental, health and aesthetic effects.

Hansen did a little coalition-building of her own. Her main golf client is the Western Washington Golf Course Superintendents Association, whose executive director, Paul Ramsdell, testified against the bill before the committee Friday.

Also represented in the hearing room – either live or through Hansen – were the Washington State Nursery and Landscape Association, the Sports Turf Managers Association and WSU Extension.

The United States Golf Association lent its weight, in the person of Larry Gilhuly, director of the USGA’s northwest region.

“Lobbying is all about education,” Hansen said, “about explaining things.”

The bill’s opponents explain that an appropriate amount of phosphorus is essential for all living things and critical for strong grass roots and a stable turf system. Healthy turf, on a fairway or a football field, makes the playing grounds fairer and safer for every player.

Both sides of the issue cited their own science. The environmental argument says non-point pollution of lakes from phosphorus runoff is a serious problem and, unlike phosphorus pollution from detergents, has never been addressed in law.

Hansen’s coalition counters by saying phosphorus adheres to grass roots, and can only move when the whole system moves. Stable, strong turf doesn’t move, and therefore doesn’t erode.

“Golf course superintendents aren’t amateurs,” Hansen said. “They know how to soil-test, they know how to manage their crop, which is grass.

“Like farmers, they apply only what they need. It’s cost-prohibitive to apply excess.”

Whose science is better, whose truth is truer – and whether SB 5194 has legs or not – can’t be known after one hearing in front of one panel from one chamber. It was contentious in Hearing Room 4 on Friday – the committee chair gaveled down one member as out of order after he complained that a question asked of a testifier was hostile.

“Clearly, there’s a lot of interest,” Hansen said, “very different opinions and a fair amount of emotion.”

If SB 5194 gets passed out of committee with a “do pass” recommendation, it would go to the Senate ways and means committee and, only after passage there, to the rules committee, which determines if a bill gets a floor vote of the full Senate.

That’s the short version … and just one chamber. SB 5194 would still face consideration by the House of Representatives and a similar gauntlet of committees. Add to that mix that there is a House version of the same bill, HB 1489, which is scheduled to be heard in committee this Friday.

At any point in the process, a bill can be amended (Hansen and her folks have ideas for SB 5194), which means that the bill as it exists today might look very different in a few weeks.

That’s a lot of process, and even more politics.

At this early point, Hansen keeps faith with her clients: the golf course superintendents.

“They know everything about their little environments,” she said.

For now, that’s truth enough.

Olympia freelance writer Bart Potter can be reached at greygoatee06@comcast.net.

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