Don’t expect much help from the state’s elected leaders over the next two years when it comes to the battle against roadside litter.
Budgets for the next biennium proposed by the House, Senate and governor’s office would continue to divert money raised from the state litter tax into the state parks department’s maintenance and operation budget.
That tax, which has been collected for more than 45 years, originally was intended to pay for litter cleanup and waste prevention programs. But since 2013, half the money, about $5 million annually, has been shifted to state parks to help patch annual holes in its budget.
The diversion was supposed to end this year, but policymakers in both parties have decided to keep it going. Lawmakers and the governor’s office said there’s little choice.
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“Without $10 million in additional funding, significant reductions would occur in the maintenance and operation of state parks across the state,” said Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee.
The diversion hasn’t set well with the Washington Food Industry Association, whose 480 members pay the tax, or with the state Department of Ecology, which has had to cut programs as a result of not getting that money over the years.
“It’s frustrating,” said Jan Gee, a spokeswoman for the food-industry association. “We have been in dispute over that for a number of years.”
The tax, formally called the Waste Reduction Recycling and Litter Control Account, has been collected since 1971.
It levies a 0.015 percent tax on manufacturers’, wholesalers’ and retailers’ gross proceeds in 13 categories of consumer products, including food (human and pet), beverages, household paper products and cleaning agents.
It raises about $10 million a year.
Until 2013, proceeds from the tax went to the Ecology Department. The law authorizing collection of the tax calls for the agency to spend:
▪ 50 percent of the money on “litter pickup and prevention through the Ecology Youth Corps and other state agency programs.”
▪ 30 percent on waste-reduction and recycling efforts.
▪ 20 percent on grants to local governments for their litter-fighting purposes.
In 2013, in the aftermath of the funding crisis of the Great Recession, state lawmakers decided to raid funds from the tax to help bolster state parks, which has struggled to meet a mandate to become self-sufficient, state Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, said.
The diversion, he said, became one of those “temporary” fixes that dragged into 2015, when lawmakers passed and Inslee signed into law a bill that called for the diversion to end this June.
But now lawmakers are struggling to come up with money to meet the McCleary court mandate, which calls for full funding of public schools, so general-fund money that might be used to help parks is scarce, Hudgins said.
Hence, the fallback to the litter tax once more.
“It’s a budget-to-budget, temporary measure,” Hudgins said. “It’s not my first position, and our goal is to eliminate this diversion. It’s called the litter tax, and it’s supposed to go to cleaning up litter.
“These are difficult choices to make.”
Efforts to reach a Senate budget expert for comment were unsuccessful last week.
The continuance of the diversion comes at a time when litter seems worse than ever along the state’s highways, a condition reported by this newspaper this month.
Lee said diverting litter-tax money to parks has little to do with the litter problem.
“The current concern with litter along state highways is driven not by a reduction in litter-tax funding, but by the unresolved Labor and Industry issues involving the departments of Corrections and Transportation, as well as poor weather conditions and the dieback of vegetation,” she said.
Lee pointed out that Inslee’s proposed budget includes a slight bump in the Ecology Department’s budget for litter-control measures.
A liability dispute has idled inmate work crews that normally would be picking up litter, plus roadside trash is more visible in early spring.
Statistics kept by the Ecology Department show a marked decrease in the amount of litter collected and miles cleaned between 2009, when the litter tax first was raided for other purposes, and 2015.
In 2009, department-supervised programs resulted in 5.7 million pounds of litter being cleared from 33,458 miles of roads statewide. In 2015, those numbers were 3.8 million pounds and 20,068 miles of roads.
The Senate budget proposal acknowledges the tax diversion was having a negative effect on litter control.
“Fewer litter crews will operate as funding is transferred to help keep state parks open and accessible to the public,” according to that proposal.
The Ecology Department was forced to eliminate a successful litter-prevention campaign because of the loss of litter-tax funds, agency spokesman Andrew Wineke said.
“It sounds obvious to say ‘litter is bad,’ but we actually saw a significant decrease in litter when we regularly reminded people,” he said.
The Ecology Department hopes to bring back that campaign and “other cleanup work” if and when the litter-tax diversion is ended, Wineke said.
“This is the worst time of year for litter,” he said. “Our (Ecology Youth Corps) median crews start in mid-March and have already picked up more than 24,000 pounds of litter on roads and public land in Pierce and Thurston counties.
“Things will be looking better soon, but it’s a never-ending job.”