What we need is 'one orca, one vote'

It’s hard to save Puget Sound when we're rummaging under the couch for spare change.
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Best budget approach may be 'first, do no harm.'

It’s hard to save Puget Sound when we're rummaging under the couch for spare change.

The orca vote evidently doesn'ꀙt count for much these days. The Puget Sound Partnership went to Olympia this year hoping for a statute that would enable voters in the 12 counties bordering Puget Sound to create an improvement district that could raise money for restoring the Sound. A Puget Sound improvement district won'ꀙt even come up for a vote this year. Some observers think the Partnership has been keeping a notably low profile in Olympia. Meanwhile, the governor'ꀙs brave deadline of a restored Sound by 2020 has gotten a year closer.

Partnership executive director David Dicks puts a reasonably positive spin on the first months of 2009. The improvement district may be toast for the time being, but the group didn'ꀙt announce its "Action Agenda" until last December, so it couldn'ꀙt lay adequate groundwork for this year'ꀙs legislative session. With more time, the Partnership can be better prepared when it tries again next year.

Even at this legislative session, all is not yet lost. Dicks still hopes the Washington State Legislature will filter any money that flows to Puget Sound programs or projects through the Partnership'ꀙs Action Agenda. Instead of running the money through an array of agency budgets and hoping that all their disparate programs add up to something useful, he talks about inverting the process, so only expenditures that will advance the agenda make it into the agency budgets.

However state money is filtered, it will be in short supply. (The best case may be distributing cuts in ways that do the least damage to long-term goals for Puget Sound.) Not so federal money; the Obama administration will send a lot of stimulus dollars to the state and to federal agencies, which could use some of them on projects that would benefit Puget Sound. Dicks says the Partnership has had three people working almost full-time on stimulus proposals.

The organization has put together "=http://www.psp.wa.gov/downloads/2009_stimulus/PS_Econ_Stim_Projects_2009_2010_updated031109.pdf">a wish list of 270 "shovel ready" habitat restoration and other projects that could soak up a half-billion dollars of stimulus money. Millions could be spent in every major watershed. Big-ticket items include $153 million for fish passage at the Howard Hanson Dam, which currently walls off 46 miles of potential habitat in the Green/Duwamish River, and $51,780,000 for removing dams on the Elwha River. Tens of millions more could go into sewage treatment plants at Shelton and Belfair, and into King County'ꀙs Brightwater plant. Other funds could restore salt marshes in the Nisqually Delta, buy and remove a trailer park and a small neighborhood near the Snohomish River, investigate reopening the natural passage between Vashon and Maury islands.

Dicks says that the Fish and Wildlife Service could send enough money to the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge to pay for restoring natural systems in the Nisqually delta. And the National Park Service could get money to put Elwha dam removal back on schedule. The removal process was supposed to start next year, but a shortage of funds has pushed the start date off to 2012. Dicks hopes the stimulus will move it back to 2010. What difference would that couple of years make? He suggests that if you'ꀙre an orca who can'ꀙt find enough chinook salmon to eat, restoring the Elwha'ꀙs chinook run two years earlier could be a big deal.

The glass certainly isn'ꀙt all empty. And yet, virtually everyone who has given the matter serious thought agrees that a key to restoring the Sound is creating a dedicated, long-term source of funds.

Not that a district would have gotten itself up and running this year even if the Legislature had been willing to act. If the enabling legislation is passed, a tax or taxes to raise money for Puget Sound will require a vote by the improvement district'ꀙs governing body. Creation of the governing body will require a vote by the people who live in the 12 counties. That will require a campaign to convince people they want to be taxed by yet another governmental entity. And that, in turn, will require decisions about how the vote will be structured — and, more fundamentally, what that governmental entity will be.

Right now, there are too many unknowns. Would the voters of any county have the choice of opting out? Inevitably, people in less-populous counties will worry about getting rolled by the right-thinking urban hordes. To overcome such fears, the people who created Metro in the 1950s to handle the sewage that was polluting Lake Washington gave the reluctant burbs a disproportionate say. That worked well enough until 1993, when U.S. District Judge William Dwyer ruled that weighted voting violated the one-man-one-vote rule. Metro has since been absorbed by King County government. Forget weighted voting.

And forget a system in which a reluctant county can simply opt out. Subtracting a few counties from the program would torpedo the whole idea. Dicks envisions a system in which seven counties, including King, would have to vote for the district. If seven or more said yes, any county voting no would have to go along. Counties plus the largest cities would somehow be represented on the governing board — as they are on the board of Sound Transit.

Another way to reassure voters who worry about getting screwed by people who live elsewhere is the 'ꀜsubarea equity'ꀝ concept that hamstrings local transit planning. Forcing an agency to spend the money where that money is raised makes sense politically, but not functionally. One could certainly spend vast sums remaking urban neighborhoods to reduce runoff or restoring habitat in urban estuaries, but if you want to preserve big blocks of relatively intact habitat that actually works — "=http://www.psp.wa.gov/downloads/ACTION_AGENDA_2008/Action_Agenda.pdf">the Partnership says its top priority is to "protect intact ecosystem processes, structures, and functions" — then you have to take tax dollars from the urban masses and spend them in the boonies. Sub-area equity would kill Puget Sound restoration — a fact of which Dicks is well aware.

Dicks says skeptics complain that the Puget Sound improvement district sounds a lot like the Regional Transit Improvement District, whose $17.8 billion transportation bond proposal voters trashed in 2007. He concedes that it does. But he suggests there are only so many ways you can assemble a multi-county special-purpose district.

Dicks says, though, that he hopes the new improvement district emerges with a much clearer focus than the RTID, which asked people to spend those billions on an uneasy blend of roads and transit that included neither the Alaskan Way Viaduct nor the 520 bridge, and left many voters confused about what they were voting for. Dicks says he prefers the clear transit focus of Sound Transit; you may or may not like it, but at least you know what it is. He envisions an improvement district focusing on, say, stormwater: One could frame the argument by saying the counties and cities would need $X to handle stormwater, there'ꀙs no existing way to pay for it, but a new improvement district could cover the cost. Then, the district could impose a tax on . . . it isn'ꀙt certain. The district might add onto one or more of the usual array of property and sales taxes. It could emulate Maryland and impose a "flush tax" on each household. It could come up with something else. The Partnership hopes that the Legislature would give the new district a menu of possible ways to raise the money, and the district would choose one or more that made sense.

Meanwhile, some of the green faithful are growing impatient. "Is there a frustration about lack of action?" asks a man who has followed Puget Sound issues for an environmental group. "Sure." He recognizes that this year, "everything ran smack into the $8 billion budget gap," but he has grown "more pessimistic than I'ꀙd like to appear in public." A former state agency director complains that the Action Agenda contains way too much process and nowhere near enough action; just read through it and see all the sentences that start with process words, he says. An environmental group leader says it all seems like "business as usual tied up in a shiny new ribbon." A woman who has been involved in Puget Sound planning efforts since the 1980s notes that the Action Agenda follows the salmon recovery plan and the defunct Puget Sound Action Team'ꀙs plan and the longer-defunct Puget Sound Water Quality Authority'ꀙs plan, and she thinks maybe, just maybe, it'ꀙs time we got to work.

Dicks is, of course, aware of such complaints. He takes some of them with a grain of salt. Many environmentalists argue that everybody knows what to do, we just have to do it, but he says everybody "knows" some things that are unproven or simply wrong. There'ꀙs not much point in just doing something.

Still, while "saving the Sound" remains a motherhood-and-apple-pie staple of Washington politics, the ringing pronouncements have devolved into bureaucratese, and the economic crisis has put just about everything on hold. It'ꀙs hard to concentrate on saving the world when you'ꀙre rummaging under the couch for spare change. When the economy picks up, it'ꀙs not clear how long the line for new tax revenue will be, and how far behind schedule we will have fallen. Is 2020 still realistic? Was it ever?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.