Tapping business through higher permit fees might be one way the Legislature finds new money this year without entering the political mine field of tax increases.
But farms, factories, developers and other businesses want something in return: an easier permitting process.
One target is the timber industry. It could see a $50 fee for a typical forestry project rise to a range of $100 to $750 under a proposal that emerged from negotiations Friday.
In return, permits would last longer and forest landowners could obtain a single permit for work they do near streams, instead of having to apply to two state agencies.
Environmentalists are concerned that the proposed changes in government oversight go too far.
But the prospect of streamlining the process has stirred interest among timber industry representatives – although that interest is cautious. They want bigger steps to streamline – and smaller fee increases.
“If the costs go up too high, people just don’t harvest,” said Mark Doumit, executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, a trade group for forest landowners including Weyerhaeuser Co. and Port Blakely Tree Farms.
“We don’t want to create a disincentive for people to do work,” he said. “These are jobs we’re talking about here.”
Lawmakers such as Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, say fees should go up to make sure permit holders pay the full cost of processing the permit. Otherwise, he said, the state is effectively subsidizing those industries.
“The question for a legislator,” Dunshee said, “is do you want to spend money on issuing those permits or do you want to spend it on classroom size reduction?”
The same debate will be playing out as the 105-day legislative session winds down and budget writers consider raising fees.
A delayed House plan for bridging a $5.3 billion budget shortfall is set to be unveiled today. In her own plan, Gov. Chris Gregoire called on natural resource agencies to make up for cuts with fee increases.
One category of ideas in play would raise money from the public. Those are gaining steam, as lawmakers consider raising the price of hunting and fishing licenses and charging people to go to state parks, forests and other lands. The other category is the permits, which mainly hit businesses and local governments and may be more contentious:
• The current fees on forestry work raise $750,000 every two years for the Department of Natural Resources. That doesn’t cover anywhere near the cost of the program, which is about $23 million. Increases pitched by Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, and advanced by a committee Friday would help make up for Gregoire’s proposed cuts.
• The Department of Fish and Wildlife requires hydraulic permits for construction projects near water, but there is no charge for the permits. Faced with more than $5 million in cuts to the program under Gregoire’s plan, the agency wants to replace much of the cuts by creating a fee.
• Gregoire and lawmakers want to make farms, factories, developers and other water users take on the full cost of state-issued water rights permits. Applications cost $10.2 million to process, according to the Department of Ecology, with applicants picking up just $150,000 of that cost.
Farmers say it takes too long to obtain a water-rights permit and it’s unclear to them when they need a hydraulic permit. In both cases, opponents complain the cuts they are being asked to make up are too deep, and natural resource agencies should do more to reform along with raising prices.
“The focus (of agencies) seems to really be on the fees,” said Chris McCabe, a lobbyist with the Association of Washington Business. “Our members would be willing to consider it, but not until we see some absolutely critical reforms that need to be made.”
The forestry projects proposal would be the first increase in the $50 fee since its creation in 1993, DNR spokesman Brian Flint said.
While Doumit called the increases excessive, Miguel Perez-Gibson, a lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council, countered that they are relatively small for a “multibillion-dollar industry.”
To help companies swallow increases, lawmakers have proposed extending the life of the permits from two years to four. And they would eliminate the need for forestry projects to get the other kind of permit, the one Fish and Wildlife issues for projects near water. Fish biologists’ role would be more limited.
The forest landowners say the agency retains too much of a role under Hargrove’s proposal and fish could be protected at a lower cost to the state. But Fish and Wildlife maintains that its biologists’ expertise is needed, and the environmental council says the agency should keep its oversight authority.
Perez-Gibson said no exception should be carved out of the department’s authority to protect salmon.
“It’s an endangered species,” he said, “and it doesn’t make sense that salmon swim across the ocean, through the sound and up the river, and when they get to the forest, the department no longer provides protection.”