The state Senate took a step closer to setting up a new Puget Sound Corps Wednesday, a move supporters say would create jobs, reward veterans and attract federal funding.
In a 40-8 vote, the Senate passed a bill to add about 150 jobs to the Washington Conservation Corps, with many lawmakers calling it a great idea but others saying it was little more than a token gesture toward restoring the Puget Sound watershed.
“This bill is about streamlining government, about efficiency in government and about creating jobs in Washington State,” said Kevin Ranker, a Democrat from San Juan Island and the bill’s primary sponsor.
Senate Bill 5230 would consolidate the administration of the Washington Conservation Corps from several agencies into the Ecology Department. Saving would be used to hire extra workers and set up a new, Puget Sound-focused branch of the corps.
According to the bill’s fiscal note, the Department of Ecology would be able to add about 70 new conservation corps members in 2012 and 80 more in 2013.
Since a hearing in January, the bill’s sponsors also added a new provision that would designate 5 percent of all federal money that comes into the conservation corps program to fund the Veterans’ Conservation Corps.
Both the Washington Conservation Corps and the Veterans’ Conservation Corps are state-run programs that put people to work on environmental restoration projects. The Washington corps hires 18- to 25-year-olds for an hourly wage and gives them a $5,350 scholarship after they work for a year. Currently, the veterans’ program is an all-volunteer corps.
Setting aside more money for the veterans’ corps would allow veterans who work in the program to get paid, supporters said.
Mark Fischer program manager for the Veterans’ Conservation Corps, said his program would benefit from more funding, but he doubted that the bill’s financing provision would mean very much money per year.
In order to actually pay veterans for the work they do, Fischer said, he would probably have to supplement the money that the bill would provide with money from other sources, such as the AmeriCorps program. The 5 percent allocation, however, could mean higher wages than AmeriCorps jobs usually offer.
Sen. Mike Carrell, a Lakewood Republican who voted against the bill, said he thought supporters were overstating its ability to both help veterans and clean up the Puget Sound region.
“In the 17 years I’ve been here, I’ve seen a whole series of bills to do something about Puget Sound,” he said. “This is just sort of another feel-good bill.”
Washington Conservation Corps spokesman Curt Hart said the new Puget Sound Corps would focus on projects on public lands that could include pulling out old, creosote-treated pilings, rehabilitating streams and planting trees to prevent erosion and restore wetlands.
Adding new employees and the Puget Sound Corps to the conservation corps would be a step toward accomplishing the goals Gov. Chris Gregoire set out in her 2005 Puget Sound initiative. That program created the Puget Sound Partnership and charged it with developing a plan for restoring the sound by 2020.
If the Puget Sound Corps were created, its members would probably work with other groups to implement the Puget Sound Partnership’s action agenda, said partnership spokesman Frank Mendizabal.
According to its 2009 State of the Sound report, the area has seen declining eelgrass beds, deforestation and reduced orca whale populations in recent years. The report also said there was evidence that some salmon runs are growing and freshwater and sediment quality is improving.
Mendizabal said Puget Sound was on track for meeting the goals for a 2020 restoration set out in the Puget Sound Partnership’s action agenda.
Another reason that the bill focuses on the Puget Sound region, Ranker said, is to attract federal funding.
Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, who helped draft the proposal, said the Environmental Protection Agency has been paying attention to Puget Sound restoration, which could put the new corps in a good position to attract grant money.
To go into effect, the measure still needs to pass the House and be signed by the governor. A companion bill, House Bill 1294, was passed to the House Rules Committee on Feb. 17.
Katie Schmidt: 360-786-1826 email@example.com