February 18, 2010

Legislators in Olympia weigh the price of stormwater clean-up

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JenniferPacked in a fluorescent-lit conference room, legislators, lobbyist, citizens, and environmentalists wait patiently to voice their views and questions regarding House bill 3181.

The newly proposed legislation, sponsored by Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, has caused a flurry of controversy since its proposal last week. At a hearing Wednesday, it generated a constant parade of people waiting to testify, even if only for a moment.

The bill would increase a tax on hazardous substances in Washington state from 0.7 percent to 2 percent in order to fund stormwater clean-up and other environmental programs. This alone makes the bill controversial, provoking opposition from state oil refineries, truckers, airlines, and other petroleum reliant industries. But an additional layer of contention has emerged because of how the funds generated from the tax would be distributed.

Between July 2010 and July 2011 nearly 70 percent of the revenue from the tax would go into the state’s general fund, while 20 percent would be allocated for stormwater clean-up. The remainder would be distributed into other environmental programs. The legislation would raise over $150 million for the general fund, which is currently facing an enormous deficit. This is only temporary. Over the following four years, the percentage of funds for stormwater clean-up would increase exponentially while the amount of revenue distributed into the general fund would gradually decrease down to zero by 2015.

Republican members of the House Capitol Budget Committee held on tightly to the issue of distribution, repeatedly asking supporters and opponents of the legislation how they felt about the allocation of the tax revenue. Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, asked supporters of the bill:

“Would you be open to supporting an amendment that this funding, should it be passed by the Legislature, would remain dedicated to dealing with stormwater runoff and point source pollution and not transfer it to the general fund. Would you support that?”

The resounding answer from supporters and environmentalists was that this bill addresses two key issues: the state deficit and stormwater pollution. Since its conception 20 years ago, the state hazardous substance tax has never been raised, while water pollution has increased. The burden to clean up the environment and address stormwater pollution has been placed on local governments. Cities and counties have relied on utility and individual property tax revenue to pay for stormwater clean-up projects, but there simply is not enough money. Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, warned that if the state does not address the issue,  property taxes may increase. Testifying before the committee, Mo McBroom with the Washington Environmental Council, explained why she believes in the legislation:

“I can tell you from the perspective of the environmental community this is one of the most important things we can do. And over time as the economy improves, the bill sets up a structure to transition the dollars so all of them revert back to stormwater, but in the near term, we all suffer when the general fund does not have sufficient funding.”

But in this tough economy, the loss and creation of jobs is a crucial point of discussion with every bill that is proposed. Opponents of HB 3181 argued that the legislation would cause the loss of jobs due to the higher hazardous substance tax.

Donning coveralls, oil refinery workers testified one after another, emotionally voicing their concerns that the bill would put their jobs at risk. Lobbyists for oil companies claimed that the legislation would take away the companies’ competitive edge, causing them to lose business to neighboring states and overseas markets. Supporters claimed that the bill would create construction jobs for the industry that has been hit hard by the economy.

Clearly the legislation affects a diverse group of parties, but the bottom line for supporters is that water pollution has to be addressed now. According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, between 8 million and 55 million pounds of petroleum-based pollution enter Puget Sound via stormwater every year. Rivers, streams, and lakes across the state are facing similar stormwater pollution problems. This affects ground water, health of both humans and marine life, recreation, fishing, and tourism.

The financial burden of clean-up is too great to rest on the backs of local governments, supporters insist. Although pollution is an epidemic everyone should take responsibility, supporters argue that it’s due time to raise taxes on the pollutants that are dirtying local water.

Gov. Christine Gregoire gave her support to the bill this week and the majority of Democrats, environmentalists, cities, and counties have rallied in support of the legislation.

— Jennifer Privette

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