Puget Sound water quality, Washington's cash-strapped municipal governments, and unemployed laborers and teamsters all lost when the Clean Water Act of 2010 perished in the special session. The legislation would have raised the tax on hazardous substances — mainly petroleum — to pay for stormwater projects in the Puget Sound basin and elsewhere around the state, including the banks of the Columbia and Spokane rivers. A similar bill passed the House last year but never reached the Senate floor. This year, bills were reintroduced in both chambers where they died, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
"It's been such an up and down ride,” said Brendon Cechovic, program director for the Washington Conservation Voters, while he was waiting to see what the special session would do. "I wish we had something else to pull out of the hat," he added, but “at this point ... I have nothing else up my sleeve, and neither do our opponents."
The arguments pro and con had all become pretty familiar by the time legislators reconvened in Olympia. And the petroleum industry was putting on a full-court press to sell the cons. The industry's lobbying blitz was "unlike anything I've ever seen," Cechovic said.
Was it the industry lobbying that turned the tide, or the legislature's inability to even pass a budget before the last minute, or the unwillingness of certain members to stick their necks out? Yes. All of those factors came into play. The bill's support always seemed fairly broad but shallow, and the leadership didn't push it.
People for Puget Sound executive director Kathy Fletcher suggests that the legislators' prolonged struggle to pass a budget "really reduced their appetite to deal with another tax issue." And, of course they were reluctant to raise taxes in a recession. But when push came to shove, they did. Selectively. Fletcher says it's “strange ... that they felt they could tax consumers and not oil companies."
She also considers it rather strange that the explosion which killed six workers at Tesoro's Anacortes refinery seemed to increase legislative sympathy for oil companies. "One might have expected" legislators to take a critical look at the refinery's safety record, she notes. Instead, legislators felt a natural sympathy for the workers who had been killed and maimed, and "transferred that sympathy to the companies."
The tax would have covered the companies' gasoline, motor oil, and asphalt, but not jet fuel. The Department of Ecology would have doled out most of the money for capital projects and retrofits that dealt somehow with the petroleum content of stormwater, and with those or other projects that had the highest priority based on ecological or water quality benefits. For capital projects, local government would have needed a 50 percent match.
These are big construction projects — think excavation, concrete pours, large-diameter pipe — so they would generate construction-industry jobs. Not surprisingly, some labor unions have supported the idea. Stormwater projects also cost a lot of money that city and county governments, which are legally obligated to undertake them, don't have. Not surprisingly, city and county governments have supported it, too. In early March, going into the special session, the King County Council passed a motion urging the legislature to enact the bill.
The legislature didn't pass the measure, but it didn't send the bill's supporters home entirely empty-handed. "A funny thing happened on the way to finalizing the budget," Fletcher says. At the last minute, the legislature set aside $50 million from existing Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA) and other funds to help local governments with stormwater. She says that was "wonderful" — but the funds will be available for only one year.
"If anything, the pressure on local governments is going to be greater" next year, Fletcher says, so governments won't lose interest in legislation that would create an ongoing stream of cash. Neither will the environmental movement. "We'll probably be back" next year, Fletcher says.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!