Along with every other interest group, environmentalists hope the programs they've fought for won't be gutted as the Legislature again tries to fix a huge deficit.
Still, lobbyists and legislators say there might be a few modest victories and if nothing else, the chance to keep issues in the public eye during the session that opened Monday.
Washington has had to close a $12 billion shortfall over the past three years, and Gov. Chris Gregoire has reluctantly proposed “devastating reductions” to fix the state’s additional $4.6 billion deficit.
While acknowledging the need to sustain critical health, education and social service needs, environmentalists say natural resource agencies have already taken more than their share of cuts – and there’s not much room to reduce further.
“Many of these programs are close to being decimated,” said Clifford Traisman, lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters. “This next session is going to determine whether basic environmental protections are in place.”
“We will see deep cuts in environmental programs just as we’re going to see deep cuts in education, human services and everybody else,” said Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, chairman of the House Environment Committee. However, “You shouldn’t disproportionately cut your natural resource agencies.”
The Nature Conservancy’s Bill Robinson says he doubts there’s much of a chance for any major new initiative, and that keeping core environmental programs will have to be the focus. Nevertheless, he said, it’s important to keep issues such as reducing stormwater pollution before the Legislature and the public.
One tactic environmental groups will use, said Bruce Wishart, policy director for People for Puget Sound, will be to promote user fees on industries that cause environmental problems as a way to take pressure off taxpayers.
“We will be coming in proactively with a number of polluter fees,” he said.
The state Ecology Department has a list of proposals, including revamping state water management, requiring manufacturers of children’s products to look for safer chemicals to use, and further encouraging the replacement of older, dirtier-burning wood stoves. The Department of Natural Resources has proposed consolidating the administration of different conservation job and training programs into a single program run by Ecology to concentrate on Puget Sound restoration, and Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said this week that he wants a pilot project on making jet fuel from forest wood waste.
Legislative leaders and others say it’s much too early to know what might actually emerge from the session, but list a number of other issues likely to come up:
Stormwater: Attempts have been unsuccessful in the past two sessions to raise the state’s hazardous substances tax to help pay for water cleanup projects, especially reducing stormwater pollution entering Puget Sound. Business groups say a higher tax on oil and chemicals would hurt state refineries and only be passed along to consumers. Environmentalists will try again this year, calling for a fee on polluters and portraying the proposal as a job-creating measure.
Frank Holmes, Northwest region director for the Western States Petroleum Association, said the state should first complete its studies of toxic substances getting into Puget Sound. In the state’s current economic climate, “adding new costs to any constituent in the state would be very harmful to the economy,” he said.
Reform: Upthegrove’s committee has been taking a line-by-line look at state statutes for environmental agencies to ferret out unneeded or outdated rules and reporting requirements. The goal, he says, is “to come up with a large number of modest reforms that collectively can save some time and money.”
Oil Spills: Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, is backing a bill to require companies running oil tankers to have adequate plans and equipment to deal with a major spill. She says the Gulf oil spill shows the need to better protect Washington’s waters.
TransAlta: There will be another push to end a tax exemption for TransAlta’s coal power plant in Centralia, this time proposing the tax break be used to move the plant toward cleaner sources of energy and build new infrastructure and create jobs in the area.
Fertilizer: Environmentalists want to reduce the amount of phosphorous in lawn fertilizers to lower the chance of it getting into lakes and rivers where it can cause algae blooms and hurt water quality.
Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Kitsap County and chairman of the Senate Environment, Water and Energy Committee, said he likes many of those ideas, but it all comes down to money.
“If a bill would cost more dollars than it saves I’m going to be very skeptical about pushing that kind of legislation anywhere,” Rockefeller said.