The fate of major proposed cutbacks in state aid to city and county budgets could hinge on whether state lawmakers are willing to hit the brakes on new environmental rules for development.
Majority Democrats in the House are considering deep, permanent cuts that could eventually hit cities and counties to the tune of $160 million a year under a proposal now before the House budget committee.
Lawmakers call for softening the blow of those cuts in a number of ways. One is to let cities and counties raise taxes, but that idea has mixed support among local officials who see political hurdles to tax hikes, and it has little interest in the Senate. “I’m not sure it works much beyond King County,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown says.
Beyond tax power, none of the ideas is more important to local governments – and none will be more hotly opposed – than a proposal to delay and change rules on polluted water runoff.
Local governments “want this delay,” Democratic Rep. Larry Springer, a former mayor of Kirkland, said at a hearing Thursday, “and the reason generally stated is, we’re about to cut tens upon tens upon tens of millions of dollars out of local government funding.”
Looser storm water rules could make headway in the Senate, where the proposal is supported by pro-business Democrats, whose votes on the budget are up in the air, and by Republicans. Democratic leader Brown said she’s waiting to see if a deal can be negotiated but wouldn’t rule out such changes.
NEW RULES COMING
Looming over Western Washington local governments are proposed rules from the state Department of Ecology that would mandate what is known as low-impact development.
Those techniques include green roofs, rain gardens, permeable pavement, narrow roads and landscaping with plants that filter pollutants.
The goal is to stop storm runoff tainted by oil, fertilizer and other toxic chemicals from flowing untreated into Puget Sound.
The green methods work far better and are often cheaper than conventional techniques such as building ponds to catch runoff, said Curtis Hinman, a researcher at Washington State University’s extension in Puyallup who is an expert on low-impact development.
“There’s still more to learn, but there are projects out there already” that are succeeding, Hinman said. “Once these things become regulated and people have to do it, it speeds up that process. All of a sudden the technology, the application accelerates.”
Prodded by rulings from the state Pollution Control Hearings Board, Ecology plans to require publicly owned storm water systems to adopt low-impact rules for new development and redevelopment. The agency is reviewing public comments on its drafts and plans to issue final rules in June.
The rules won’t take effect until August 2013 under a one-year delay the Legislature approved last year to help local governments that have to adopt new rules.
Now lawmakers are considering a new delay of two to five years for smaller governments that are not as far along in the process as Seattle, Tacoma and King, Pierce, Snohomish and Clark counties.
Some examples: Federal Way, Puyallup, Lakewood and Gig Harbor would have until 2015; Thurston County, Lacey and Tumwater would have until 2016; Centralia would have until 2017; and Aberdeen would have until 2018.
Even once rules are in place, cities and counties have as many as three more years to update their local development laws.
The House proposal generally takes an approach to low-impact development that focuses on incentives, rather than mandates, for developers.
“It’s really about deregulation, pure and simple,” Bruce Wishart, a lobbyist for environmental groups including People for Puget Sound, told lawmakers. “This bill would prevent the department from moving forward with their permit.”
Dave Williams, who lobbies for the Association of Washington Cities, disputed that it would be a rollback of regulation, since the rules haven’t yet taken effect.
“The sense is, it’s too much, too fast,” Williams said. “We’re supportive of making low-impact development work. It makes sense in a lot of places. We’re not convinced it has to be mandated in this five-year period (2013-2018). Is there enough known? Can we see how an incentive program works?”
Williams said environmentalists – concerned that the next governor could be a Republican – want Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire’s administration to write the rule this year before she leaves office.
The bill, House Bill 2801, is sponsored by Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, and counted on by the budget plan that slashes local governments. House Democrats who wrote the budget said the state has for years been helping local governments fill holes in their budgets, including some created by statewide voter initiatives, and can no longer afford to do so.
Senate Democrats disagree. Though their budget also would grab local money, it isn’t a permanent shift.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826