Over the past nine years, the Environmental Priorities Coalition, a network of 25 leading environmental groups has discovered that its unity behind a handful of shared priorities can have more success than operating independently with a scattered message to lawmakers.
This year, the environmental community has adopted four ambitious legislative priorities that recognize the horrible economic conditions faced by lawmakers. Mo McBroom, policy director for the Washington Environmental Council, said leaders of environmental organizations recognize that this is not the year to come to the Legislature with grandiose plans costing millions of dollars — not with the state facing a $4.6 billion budget shortfall.
What’s important to note is the environmentalists have adopted a so-called “user pay” model in which those who use natural resources, those who contribute to pollution, those who take advantage of state programs, would pay a fee.
Members of the public should pay attention to these environmental proposals as they may well signal a shift in state policy, limiting the use of tax dollars to support core state services — basic K-12 education, essential social services and public safety — and requiring user fees for other state services, whether it’s visiting a state park, harvesting timber from state land, getting a water rights permit, hunting, fishing or having a boat inspected.
It’s a policy Gov. Chris Gregoire embraced in parts of her budget proposal to the 2011 Legislature.
It’s a shift in expectations. Call it fees, call it taxes — whatever — members of the public are going to find themselves under the gun to pay more. It might be more tolls to use state highways, higher gasoline taxes to fund highway construction projects, camping and day-use park fees. And once the state heads down that “user pay” path, there will be little to slow the momentum.
That’s why it’s important for members of the public to keep an eye on the 2011 Legislature to see if lawmakers are willing to embrace the “user-pay” philosophy in environmental and other arenas.
The four environmental priorities pushed by the coalition, likely will have a mixed reception in the Legislature.
The one priority that hits closest to home, is the proposal to, in effect, force the TransAlta Co. to shut its coal-fired energy plant near Centralia by 2015. The coalition wants TransAlta, which is based in Calgary, Alberta, to immediately begin paying into a fund to decommission the plant. They say coming EPA standards will make operation of the 39-year-old steam plant uneconomical.
This is an important local issue because 200 workers, most of whom earn $50,000 to $80,000 a year, would lose their jobs if the coal plant was shuttered. This is on top of the 600 mine workers who lost their jobs in November 2006 when TransAlta stopped mining coal locally.
Environmentalists want to force TransAlta to start planning for the closure now so that we don’t have a repeat of the miners’ immediate layoff. Residents of Lewis County should like the preparation proposal, but on the other hand, it does assume the closure, which they may not want to accept as eventual reality.
Creating a financial cushion to help ease steam plant workers into other jobs and to clean up the site may be the proper thing to do, but it’s going to be a tough sell in the Legislature, especially when House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, is a TransAlta manager.
A second environmental priority is to pass a hazardous waste fee to tackle stormwater pollution, which has been identified as the No. 1 threat to Puget Sound. The fee would mainly hit oil refineries.
A third priority is to protect key clean water and clean air programs and prevent additional raids on funds dedicated to environmental cleanup. Bill Robinson, a lobbyist for The Nature Conservancy, said Natural Resource agencies took a 27 percent budget cut last year and the governor is proposing an additional 11 percent cut in the next spending cycle. Environmentalists will work to minimize the effect of budget cuts and try to ensure that pivotal programs remain functional.
The fourth priority is to enact a ban on phosphorus in lawn fertilizers. Phosphorous is a nutrient that can cause algae blooms that rob water of oxygen when it washes into rivers, lakes and streams. More than 200 lakes and rivers statewide are polluted with phosphorus.
Environmentalists will ask that the homeowners and farmers with a “demonstrated need” still be allowed to purchase phosphorus-containing fertilizers.
Other states have adopted similar bans, which may ease the way for passage in Washington state this year.
Environmental organizations will push other bills, but are united behind these four priorities. Members of the public should pay attention to the progress on the “user pay” environmental proposals — which would raise between $20 million and $30 million — because the fate of that legislation may well signal a significant shift in public policy.