Politics & Government

No oil product tax hike this session

SEATTLE - Environmentalists chalked up some victories this legislative session, but failed on a key measure to raise the tax on oil products to pay for stormwater cleanup.

Lawmakers passed the nation’s first ban on copper brake pads, approved a statewide program requiring light manufacturers to pay to recycle mercury and banned the chemical bisphenol A from children’s drink containers and sports bottles.

But the most controversial proposal — to raise the state’s existing hazardous substances tax — didn’t make it out of the House before the state Legislature adjourned its special session Tuesday.

“It was touch-and-go there right to the end,” said Bruce Wishart, policy director for People for Puget Sound. “We just ran out of time.”

State officials say stormwater pollution is the biggest threat to Puget Sound. The measure received support from the Puget Sound Partnership, local governments and organized labor.

This was the second year environmentalists pushed the tax hike, which they said would raise millions annually for water cleanup projects. The idea was pitched as a way to create jobs and patch the state’s $2.8 billion budget deficit; a portion of the money would have gone to the state’s general fund.

Business groups lined up in opposition, arguing that raising the tax on oil, pesticides and other chemicals would hamper state refineries and hurt the average consumer at the gas pump.

“The industry currently passes along the current tax and will continue to do so, so it would affect small businesses and consumers at the pump,” said Tim Hamilton, executive director of the McCleary-based Automotive United Trades Organization, which represents gas-station owners.

His group filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court last month challenging the tax, which voters approved in 1988. The group will continue with the suit, he said.

Wishart said the impact of a tax hike would be marginal to consumers and that “our goal was to have oil companies pay their fair share.”

The current 0.7 percent tax raised about $127 million in 2009, according to state revenue figures. State oil refiners paid the bulk of that.

In the latest version, environmentalists pushed a 0.85 percent tax hike to raise an additional $100 million a year to help cities and counties with stormwater cleanup; that version didn’t include money for the general fund.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups also unsuccessfully pushed to end a tax exemption for TransAlta, which operates a coal plant in Centralia.

But environmentalists were able to stave off serious budget cuts, including retaining about $67 million for state toxic cleanup, Wishart said.

Among other environmental laws passed:

 • Starting in 2013, manufacturers of lights containing mercury will be required to set up and pay for a statewide program to recycle the toxic metal. State officials say improper disposal of mercury threatens the environment and human health.

 • The state will ban the manufacture and sale of food and drink containers made with bisphenol A – also known as BPA – if they’re intended for children under age 3. Sports water bottles made with the chemical are also banned. The ban on children’s containers begins July 1, 2011, and the ban on sports bottles begins July 1, 2012.

 • The state will ban brake pads containing more than 5 percent copper starting in 2021. The allowable amount could drop almost to zero in 2023 if manufacturers show it is possible. Research has shown that low levels of copper pose a hazard to fish and other marine life.