To paraphrase Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen: $120 million here and $120 million there, and pretty soon you're into real money.
That $120 million is the amount that People for Puget Sound and its allies in the Environmental Priorities Coalition hope to raise for stormwater projects through a $1.50 per barrel fee on petroleum products (including gasoline, motor oil, and asphalt, but not jet fuel) that will go before this month's session of the legislature.
The Department of Ecology would dole out the money for capital projects and retrofits that deal somehow with the petroleum content of stormwater, and with those or other projects that have the highest priority based on ecological or water-quality benefits. (It is the most ambitious part of a remarkably limited wish list that the environmental community has taken to Olympia. The greens also want to minimize spending cuts for environmental programs and phase out bisphenol-A from infant and other food and drink containers.)
For capital projects dealing with stormwater, local government will have to come up with a 50 percent match. For retrofits, the rating system will give preference to low-impact development.
Let's see: $120 million a year for 10 years would be $1.2 billion — a nice chunk of change albeit a fraction of the $8 billion some people have estimated it will cost to restore Puget Sound by the governor's optimistic deadline of 2020.
Last January, recalls Brendon Cechovic, program director for the Washington Conservation Voters, a similar bill “passed the House in the waning days of the session with 51 votes largely due to a push by the Blue-Green Alliance, a group of labor and environmental House Democrats. The bill didn't make it to the Senate floor." So what has changed? “We do feel like we're in a better position this year,” Cechovic says. The bill “can be part of the solution at a time when the legislature is clearly looking for solutions.”
With a nod to current political priorities, the bill would be not only a water quality program; it would be a jobs program, too. Cechovic describes it as a kind of statewide stimulus package. Stormwater projects are basically construction jobs that employ relatively large numbers of people at relatively high wages. “The bill funds shovel-ready projects all over the state,” Cechovic says, “at a time when we desperately need more good-paying jobs.”
It also gets cities off the hook for financing those shovel-ready projects. (A partial list of projects that the new tax might or might not fund includes: the relocation of Maddox Creek in Mount Vernon for $9 million; outfall repairs in Oak Harbor for $2.5 million; and extension of 48-inch storm mains along Puyallup's 15th Street for $4.8 million.) “Cities are already preparing to spend over $500 million of locally raised funds for stormwater projects and costs,” Cechovic says. “Without a source of state funds to meet these requirements, many local governments may be forced to raise property or utility taxes.”
Not all the money would go to Puget Sound. Other places have stormwater problems of their own. Prime sponsors of the legislation this session and last have been Spokane Rep. Timm Ormsby, whose constituents worry more about pollution of the Spokane River, and Vancouver Sen. Craig Pridemore, whose constituents worry more about the Columbia.
The Washington Association of Cities, the Washington Association of Counties, and the Washington Ports Association all support the legislation. The petroleum industry opposes it. Last year, that was enough. This year, it may not be.
No one even talks about jacking up state water quality spending. Actually, Puget Sound restoration will probably get more money this year than last — less from the state but substantially more from the feds. Facing a $2.6 billion budget gap, confronting the prospect of short-changing the young, the old, the poor, the sick, state legislators won't turn their pockets inside out to make life better for fish. Not this year. And maybe not for some years to come.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!