Olympia duel over golf course fertilizers too close to call

March 22, 2011 

In the din of the state Legislature, the calm center is found in the staffers who serve the committees that first consider the bills that eventually become state law.

There is no nuance of process, no seam in the system, these old hands don’t know how to exploit.

Committee staffers are officially nonpartisan, by state law. In practice, if anybody in the Legislature is nonpartisan, they come the closest.

The evenhandedness of staff for the state Senate water, environment and energy committee is on full display in its report on Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1489, which is sitting just short of passage by the Legislature.

The bill, which aims to protect water quality through restrictions on fertilizer containing phosphorus, is virtually identical to Senate Bill 5194 (The Olympian, Feb. 1), which caught the attention of golf course superintendents in the state.

ESHB 1489 (the extra initials signify amendments) passed the House of Representatives on Feb. 28, was sent on to the Senate, and last Thursday was passed out of the above Senate committee, with more amendments.

As of Monday, the bill was listed on the Senate floor activity calendar, a precursor to a possible floor vote. If the bill passes the Senate, it would have to return to the House for “concurrence” on amendments before it could be considered passed by the full Legislature.

OK, deep breath. That’s a lot of process, with more to come. This wasn’t meant to be Legislature 101.

To cut through it all, it can be helpful to read committee staff’s bill reports.

Political debate is heated to boiling with statements, by both sides, that are overly broad or restrictively narrow, all to partisan ends. Staff reports tend to leave ambiguities intact – it’s not their job to resolve them.

The ESHB 1489 report soberly summarizes positions:

Pro: Phosphorus contributes to toxic algae blooms that are dangerous to wildlife, pets and people. The bill would make lakes and rivers cleaner and healthier by limiting the use of phosphorus in certain fertilizers. Similar laws have been effective in other states.

Con: The bill lacks accountability, such as tests to determine the source of phosphorus (which foes think would show it doesn’t come from golf courses or sports fields) and whether the bill, if passed, will do what it sets out to do.

The bill, according to its opponents, lacks an educational model involving the Four Rs: “The right product, applied at the right rate, at the right time, in the right place.”

The last sentence of the opponents’ section says, “There is interest in seeing golf course superintendents who are trained and certified be exempt from this bill.”

Amendments to 1489 do not include a failed proposal by Rep. Matt Shea (R-Spokane Valley) that would have exempted golf courses from the ban on applying phosphorus fertilizer.

So, superintendents, environmentalists at heart, find themselves in the uncomfortable position of opposing ESHB 1489 alongside politicians who might take a dim view of environmental legislation of any kind.

And while they do have a dog in this fight, golf course superintendents – in the experience of one opinionated golf columnist – are not ideologically partisan.

They just want to do their jobs, with the right tools, the best way they know how.

IN THE REAL WORLD

One of the best things about golf is you meet people who love golf and live golf and keep a place for golf in their souls. And some of them have a real lives, too.

Craig Foster, an Olympia golf club technician, is also the music director and guitarist for the McCleary-based Johnny Cash tribute band, Dan Whyms and Rock Island Line.

Foster recently saw a tweet from an editor at Golf Digest magazine about a friend’s music blog. The blogger is an unemployed reporter from Milwaukee named Jim Smith. He’s also a big Johnny Cash fan, so Foster sent him a link to his band’s website, daninblack.com.

For the rest of the story, go to sixstringsanctuary.blogspot.com (drill down to the March 6 entry).

Smith apparently is not a golfer, but that’s OK.

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