Wash. enviro groups have modest legislative agenda

AP News
Posted: Jan 04, 2010 10:50 AM

With the Legislature facing a $2.6 billion budget deficit, Washington environmentalists have a modest agenda for the upcoming session and hope to avoid further cutbacks they say have already devastated environmental protection in the state.

No sweeping measures have been proposed _ in fact, much of the lobbying when the 60-day session starts next week will be to defend what money is still going to environmental programs and to pass measures that didn't make it through the 2009 session.

"From a bill standpoint I don't expect a lot of action except working to protect the funding," says Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, chairman of the House Ecology & Parks Committee.

The 2009 session, when lawmakers were dealing with a $9 billion revenue shortfall, wasn't kind to any state program. But advocates say environmental efforts were especially hard hit, with natural resources agencies losing 25 percent of their funding.

Natural resources, says Bill Robinson, director of state government relations for The Nature Conservancy, "took the largest budget cut of any of the state functions" _ proportionately, almost two and a half times more than any other area of the budget.

He said many programs that provide the basic science and technology for such things as environmental restoration and wildlife protection were "cut back drastically to the point they're almost nonfunctional."

"We did not have a good session last year," says Clifford Traisman, who lobbies for the Environmental Priorities Coalition, a group of 25 environmental organizations. "We brought forth an agenda this year that we think is consistent with the economic environment we're confronted with."

The coalition has three primary goals:

_Maintain environmental protections and keep spending cuts to a minimum.

_The "Safe Baby Bottles Act," which would phase out the chemical bisphenol from infant food and drink containers and other consumer products. Evidence links the chemical to cancer, miscarriage and other health problems, the coalition says.

_A bill to impose a fee on petroleum products to help pay for cleaning up and preventing stormwater runoff pollution in Puget Sound and other waters. Advocates say it would result in "shovel-ready" projects and new jobs.

Other issues organizations are pushing include reaching a compromise with utilities on what counts as alternative energy sources under Initiative 937, passed by voters several years ago to promote green energy generation, and eliminating tax breaks for the TransAlta coal power plant near Centralia.

None of the proposals made it through the last session.

To fill the $2.6 billion gap, Gov. Chris Gregoire released a no-new-taxes supplemental budget plan in December that called for outright elimination of many state programs. However, she promises a new spending plan this month with additional revenue sources to rescue many state functions, primarily in health care, welfare and education.

The state Office of Financial Management has pointed out that eliminating all environmental and natural resource protection plus recreation and parks programs would only save $364 million.

Gregoire spokeswoman Karina Shagren says the new budget proposal is far from finished, but "the governor is looking at everything to restore as much as she can and that includes environmental programs as well."

"We're not going to see full restoration," Robinson says. "We realize that the state is under a severe budget crunch and budget cuts are going to have to be made and we're going to be part of that. But there are some key, core programs that must continue."

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Upthegrove's Senate counterpart, Environment, Water & Energy Committee Chairman Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, says he anticipates bills to promote energy efficiency, make sure state rules on climate change conform to the federal government's, and probably the stormwater measure.

Upthegrove sees broad support for the baby bottle bill _ "It's a hard one to vote against." Negotiations have been under way both on the I-937 and the TransAlta issues, and he's optimistic compromises can be reached.

If spending is further reduced, "all state agencies need to share in that pain," Upthegrove says, but environmental programs shouldn't be cut deeper than others.

"Once the environmental harm is done, a lot of times it can't be reversed," he says.

With the state desperate for new revenue, the fee on petroleum might have a chance, with the $1.50 a barrel proposed last year possible, Upthegrove says.

"The notion of asking a little bit more of polluters in order to maintain the integrity of our cleanup programs in these tough budget times makes sense, and I think there is a lot of interest," he says.

Oil companies aren't fond of the idea. Dave Fisher, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, says the petroleum industry wants to protect water quality, but the fee could cost it more than $1.2 billion over the next decade. That, he says, would hurt employment or mean higher gasoline prices.

"You can't impose a billion dollars-plus on an industry without it having some impact," he says.