January 28, 2010

Support for tax to pay for stormwater pollution appears lukewarm… so far

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A proposal to increase the tax on petroleum, pesticides and other chemicals is being floated in Olympia as a way to raise as much as $250 million to clean up polluted stormwater. But so far, support the for the idea among leading lawmakers appears lukewarm at best.

rita_hibbardwebEnvironmentalists are pushing the idea, which would mostly tax oil refineries to clean up stormwater runoff, the largest source of pollution to Puget Sound and other waterways in the state. The measure would sink money into the general fund initially to help meet the state’s $2.6 billion budget shortfall, with stormwater pollution getting a bigger share in future years. As key as stormwater cleanup is to the health of Puget Sound, the measure faces an uncertain future. Business groups think the tax is anti-jobs and business, and  Democratic leaders are not wholeheartedly embracing the idea, Seattle Times reporter Jim Bruner writes.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said “there is some support” for increasing the tax “and utilizing it for these clean-water needs around the state.” But, she added, “I don’t know for sure we’ll get there this session.”  House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said the hazardous-substances tax “resonates better” than the oil-barrel fee that passed the state House last year (but died in the Senate).

But Kessler said lawmakers are waiting to commit to specific taxes until February’s revenue forecast and news on federal aid.

As InvestigateWest’s Robert McClure wrote here recently, stormwater is the leading threat to Puget Sound’s health.  And Washington state is the only state in the nation that has mandated stormwater cleanup through its root cause — building practices. But despite the intention, that process has dragged on for years, and will continue to do so.  The $2.6 billion hole in the budget is real, and it’s understandable that Brown and Kessler are noncommittal about tax increases with so much at play. But equally real are the 14 million pounds of heavy metals, flame retardants, dioxins, oil and grease that wash into Puget Sound every year, according to a report by the Sightline Institute.  Groups like the Association of Washington Cities thinks it’s time to light a fire under proposals such as this one, so that individual taxpayers don’t have to bear the entire cost of cleaning up stormwater pollution.

The proposal would allow the state to use up to $150 million a year raised by the tax to meet general state needs. The tax, created by voters in 1988, raised $127 million last year, most of it paid by the state’s five oil refineries, Bruner reports. The tax rate is 0.7 percent of the wholesale value of the products.

There is some support among lawmakers. Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, said the new tax could create  jobs and relieve cities of the burden of paying for stormwater cleanup, either by raising utility rates or property taxes.

“It’s not a question of if the people pay for this. It’s who pays.”

— Rita Hibbard

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