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One potentially divisive piece of the Washington Senate-House budget talks is whether the Washington Department of Ecology faces significant cuts, including the potential closure of its Bellingham office.
As with much of the rest of the state's operating budget, the Republican-oriented Senate wants to trim part of Ecology's budget for 2013-2015.
The Senate's Majority Coalition Caucus — an alliance of 23 Republicans and two Democrats — believes the ecology department has become too fat and should be trimmed to become more cost-effective. The ecology department disagrees. The Bellingham office plays a variety of roles, ranging from helping out in the response to the recent I-5 bridge collapse to working on the review of a proposed coal port north of the city.
The Bellingham office keeps tabs on that city's waterfront toxic cleanup efforts, and recently launched a Whatcom County Clean Water program. It supervises that area's oil spill prevention and response programs, conducting 221 inspections in 2012 and responding to 619 spills in the Bellingham area since late 2006. The nearby city of Anacortes is the center for oil refining and shipping in the state. The Bellingham office also processes water-rights matters and supervises other surface and groundwater programs in that region. The Ecology Department is a co-lead agency to review permits for the proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point with the Bellingham office involved in the environmental impact study process.
"Department of Ecology doesn't like the Legislature looking too deeply into their budget. They've built quite an empire," said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale and chairman of the Senate's Energy and Environment Committee.
Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, who is involved with the Ecology Department's segment of the budget, replied, "I don't think anyone can say that an empire is being built."
During the 2011-2013 biennium, Ecology's budget has run at $441.2 million, including $70.7 million from the state's property-tax-supported general fund. The beginning point for the department's 2013-15 budget was $458.3 with $91.6 million coming from the general fund. That starting point factored in one-time shifts in 2011-2013, carryover from 2011-2013, inflation plus the Legislature increasing the department's responsibilities.
The Republican-oriented Senate proposes a 2013-2015 Ecology Department budget of $444.4 million, including $45.9 million from the general fund. The Democratic-controlled House proposes a budget of $456.3 with $60.9 million coming from the property-tax-supported general fund.
Ericksen noted the Republican budget proposal is roughly the same as the agency's 2011-2013 budget, while the Democratic proposal increases the department's budget in a time of tight finances. The biggest factors in the dollar difference between the two proposals are the general fund appropriations.
This is just one piece of the massive month-long deadlock between the House and Senate on their overall 2013-2015 operating budget proposals, with the House wanting $34.5 billion including tax measures of about $1 billion to pay for court-mandated education improvements. The Senate is pitching a $33.2 billion operation budget with $1 billion extra for education upgrades, significant cuts in social and health services and no tax measures.
To address the proposed closure of the agency's Bellingham office, the Senate's Ecology Department budget would have the Bellevue office take care of that region. Staff members from Bellevue would drive to that area when fieldwork is required. The Bellingham office holds 25 Ecology employees plus a half-dozen from other agencies.
Ericksen, whose district includes much of Bellingham, contends that the department's Bellingham office is an unnecessary expense and that the agency can more cost-effectively manage that region out of Bellevue by phone and selective auto trips. "Do we need 20 people in Ecology in Whatcom County?" Ericksen asked.
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