The third time may or may not be the charm for legislation that would fund stormwater projects through taxes or fees on petroleum — and the environmental groups that will take the idea to Olympia for the third year running may or may not really care.
This year, the Environmental Priorities Coalition's Olympia agenda will be pretty modest. It won't call for new expenditures of state money. There are four items: don't slash existing state environmental programs; stop selling phosphorous-based lawn fertilizers, which pollute Puget Sound and other bodies of water; phase out coal burning at the TransAlta plant in Centralia by 2015, rather than the 2025 date for which the governor has been negotiating (writing on Publicola, Josh Feit calls this a "direct affront" to the governor); and fund stormwater cleanup projects in communities around the state.
Two sessions ago, the greens pushed the idea of funding stormwater projects through a fee on each barrel of petroleum produced in the state. The bill got little attention and little traction. In the last session, after the legislature suspended Initiative 960, which had required a two-thirds vote for any tax increase, a bill that would have funded stormwater projects by jacking up the hazardous substances tax, paid primarily by oil refiners, made it into the extra session, where it expired amid efforts to close the budget gap and a blizzard of oil company lobbying.
Subsequently, Tesoro and Washington's other big oil refiners, ConocoPhilips, BP, and Shell, bankrolled Tim Eyman's Initiative 1053 (as did, among others, several big banks and the Washington Farm Bureau), and voters' passage of the measure re-established the two-thirds requirement.
(Tesoro also helped bankroll California's Proposition 23, which would have suspended the state's anti-climate-change law — and which last month got clobbered 62-38. After an explosion at the company's Anacortes refinery killed seven workers last April, it has been fined $2.39 million by the state Department of Labor and Industries — the largest fine the agency has ever levied. And it is under criminal investigation by the EPA in connection with the Anacortes blast.)
In the coming session, with I-1053 firmly in place for the next two years, "the lay of the land is challenging, to say the least," Washington Conservation Voters' political director Brendon Cechovic says. The green coalition may come back with a fee proposal, which would require only a simple majority. Or it may propose another tax.
Not that anyone would expect to get two-thirds. But Cechovic says last session's bill made stormwater "a front page issue." By now, he says, "I don't think there's anyone" in the legislature who doesn't know stormwater is a problem. And win or lose, coming back with another stormwater proposal would send a message: “We're not going to go away,” Cechovich says.
Whatever form the next stormwater bill takes, new expenditures will be contingent on new revenue, so "this is still budget-neutral," Cechovic says, and "it's still a jobs bill." Organized labor backed last year's legislation, and with good reason: Stormwater control requires big construction projects that employ union workers at good wages. County and city governments backed last year's bill for good reason, too: Local governments don't have enough money to complete these projects on their own. But clean water law still requires local governments to somehow get them done.
Last year, even though the legislature didn't pass the new tax — which might have raised $125 million a year — the greens came away with $50 million for stormwater projects, taken from the existing hazardous waste tax kitty. So even financially, the session wasn't a total loss. Some of the money came in the form of competitive grants. Local governments have therefore fashioned real plans, which can be used in the campaign to get more money this time around.
If new taxes aren't attractive in the current political and economic climate, new jobs are. Cechovic doesn't suggest that, therefore, the legislature will swallow hard and pass something. But “Puget Sound is going to be a multi-year and multi-stage issue,” and he's willing to be patient.
Last year, workers from the Tesoro refinery told legislators they were afraid of losing their jobs. But no one talks about shutting the refineries down. "This has never been about the oil companies," Cechovic says. "Shutting down a refinery . . . isn't necessarily a win for us," he says. “We don't win if people lose their jobs."