All over the state, young teachers are getting ready to clear out their desks, and people who have relied on the state's Basic Health plan are about to get priced out of their plan — all victims of Washington's budget crisis. When we're laying off teachers and throwing people off basic health care; so how much new money do you think we're going to spend on fish? Right. The 2009 legislature didn't pour a lot of new money into Puget Sound.
One can, however, see the glass as not quite empty: The Puget Sound Partnership says in a press release: “Despite facing an unprecedented budget deficit, the Legislature demonstrated stalwart support for the protection and restoration of Puget Sound during the 2009 regular session. . . . 'It is gratifying to know that even under such dire economic circumstances, Puget Sound recovery remains a top priority of the Legislature,”'said David Dicks, the Puget Sound Partnership’s executive director.”
A lot of the 2009 Legislature's accomplishments boil down to continued funding for programs already under way. (In the current economy, business-as-usual is nothing to scoff at, however.) But the Legislature did come up with some new money. Compared to the hefty sums that have been discussed as necessary — $8 billion was the figure thrown around two years ago, when the current save-the-Sound campaign kicked off — they represent a drop in the bucket. Still, the Partnership says it's happy about $3.4 million in new state money for habitat, and $22.2 million, most of it from the federal government, for Salmon Recovery Funding Board grants to protect and restore salmon habitat. People for Puget Sound says it's happy about getting money to help municipalities update shoreline master plans that in many cases date from the 1970s. As the organization's lobbyist, Bruce Wishart, says, those older plans “don't reflect current science and don't reflect current development pressures.”
But — behind the positive facade — neither group ignores the empty portion of the glass. “Good things did happen,” wrote People for Puget Sound executive director Kathy Fletcher. “But the bottom line is clear: Without a long-term source of funding and tough, enforced regulations, Puget Sound will die."
The Legislature failed miserably to provide the funding and, if anything, it slid backward on enforcement. Virtually all the new money represents capital rather than operating funds. Resource agencies' operating budgets have been slashed. The agencies will have fewer people monitoring projects to make sure they work, fewer people enforcing the law. It will be harder to separate effective programs from hollow promises — and hollowness will become more likely.
The Partnership's proposal for a 12-county Puget Sound improvement district (the basis for a new source of taxes) went nowhere. The Partnership was focusing on the right issues, says John Lombard, author of Saving Puget Sound, who has been critical of much save-the-Sound posturing. “I was very happy to see that,” Lombard adds. “I thought it was absolutely right.”
“You can say that a budget crisis is not the right environment" for establishing yet another taxing body, Lombard concedes, “but that's the point of a dedicated revenue source” — making sure the Sound doesn't have to compete with schools or health care.
The Partnership didn't have a lot of help. Much of the environmental community is still stuck in an outdated mode of thinking, he says: stop pollutants coming out of the pipes, and make sure the polluter pays. We should focus more on the long-term threats of population growth and climate change, Lombard argues. Audiences to which he speaks seem to grasp that; the environmental community doesn't. “There isn't anyone out there who's willing to take these issues as their own,” he says.
There's plenty to argue about, but virtually everyone seems glad that the Legislature has finally come up with permanent funding for a rescue tug at Neah Bay. The rescue tug law is landmark legislation, although looking at the long-term needs of Puget Sound, authorizing a tugboat is kind of like putting a sprinkler system into a house with a crumbling foundation. If a fire breaks out, you'll be glad you have it, but it won't stop the slow process of deterioration. Still, that tug is arguably the environmental highlight of the session. On its web site, People for Puget Sound hails a “Victory on Permanent Rescue Tug at Neah Bay.” The “progressive” political group Fuse has given the 2009 legislature a D on its environmental performance but an A on the rescue tug legislation.
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