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Who killed the water quality tax?

Eying long-term boosts for water-quality protection, environmentalists seemed to have a straight shot to getting the legislature to hike a tax on petroleum products. Then, industry lobbying turned the tide.
Puget Sound

Puget Sound National Marine Sanctuary

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.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Apr 16, 6 a.m. Inappropriate

Jack,

You leave out major pieces to this issue.

First, you fail to mention that there already significant enviro taxes and fees on purchased fuel. I see at about 5 add-ons when I buy off road fuel at bulk plants.

Also, why didn't you mention that nearly every jurisdiction in King county already levies significant surface water management taxes (swm). These monies are more often used as revenue streams to employ large numbers of people rather than actually getting projects completed.

Kathy Fletcher and Wa conservation voters folks do not reflect both sides of this issue.

This was a bad bill, and I'm glad it failed.

Posted Fri, Apr 16, 9:04 a.m. Inappropriate

There is never enough to satisfy our state's environmental lobby. They won't be happy until every single "environmentalist" has their own program (or non-profit with grant funding). Even if it means closing every school in the state and allowing every piece of infrastructure to crumble beneath us.

BlueLight

Posted Fri, Apr 16, 11:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice article. Thanks for offering some illumination.

nonydog

Posted Fri, Apr 16, 1:38 p.m. Inappropriate

You also forgot the tribes won that lawsuit to make the storm pipes that block salmon access to creeks need to be fixed. This project could have helped avoid the state being back in court over that as well. (and helped a local fishery by providing more habitat.

GaryP

Posted Fri, Apr 16, 2:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Stormwater runoff is a huge problem affecting the health of Puget Sound and all waterways. A lot of that runoff is polluted with oil products coming from raods and parking lots.

The no tax crowd has no answer except no taxes which is not an answer. This source of revenue to help clean up oil polluted storm runoff made sense. Make the people making money off selling oil products in our state help to pay for problems caused by oil in our environment.

It's the fairest way rather them them letting them make huge profits without having to pay to mittigate the problems. The oil industry wants the rest of us to pay. That's not right.

Posted Fri, Apr 16, 5:01 p.m. Inappropriate

The extent to which Washington state governments are wholly owned subsidiaries of Big Oil and Big Automotive is clearly demonstrated by the abysmal lack of public transport here -- the most automobile-dependent metropolis in the United States, with the nation's worst, most backward urban mega-region mass transit -- all the more so given politically institutionalized refusal to admit that fossil-fueled, internal-combustion-engined buses merely sustain our enslavement to the auto/petro oligarchy.

Indeed I remember all too well how, 30 years ago, an assistant director of Pierce Transit was fired for publicly suggesting that powering mass transit with the region's abundant and relatively cheap electricity would be far more economical than continued dependence on fossil fuels.

This dismal reality plus the fact that beyond rhetorical smokescreens there is not one scintilla of difference between Democrats and Republicans in terms of stubborn hostility to forcing the rich pay fair taxes -- and not withstanding the long-ago anomaly of Sen.Magnuson's huge anti-supertanker coup -- I am surprised neither by how this environmental protection measure was killed, nor by the dishonesty with which it was slain.

Posted Sat, Apr 17, 8:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Steve Zemke: We (industry) are already paying environmental taxes as I previously said. I know, you obviously think we need more. How much should we pay, and where are these "huge profits"?

Government at all levels are broke, deficits are out into the future ad infinitum, and we are already overtaxed. Anyone paying attention knows we have a day of reckoning approaching. Politicians who want to survive should propose or support NOTHING that spends more. Those days are over. Every action now has to save money, because our fiscal situation now threatens our existence more than anything else.

We are in crisis. I fear for my childrens future.

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