Environmentalists on edge as Legislature nears an end

As Washington legislators make critical budget decisions, Martha Kongsgaard of the Puget Sound Partnership discusses the challenges for the state's future of potential budget cuts.

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Puget Sound

As Washington legislators make critical budget decisions, Martha Kongsgaard of the Puget Sound Partnership discusses the challenges for the state's future of potential budget cuts.

From the beginning of this year's legislative session, environmental groups have been worried about the budget choices and policy decisions that might come from lawmakers in a difficult economic situation. A House budget proposal that included cuts of 31 percent for the Puget Sound Partnership sent the level of worry upward.

Since then, the Senate and House have converged around 9 percent in cuts, a figure also suggested by Gov. Chris Gregoire. A Puget Sound Partnership spokesman said the cuts would be, in part, from agency functions in information technology and communications but would also affect funding of the agency's efforts to assist with low-impact development techniques. 

Martha Kongsgaard, chair of Leadership Council of the Puget Sound Partnership, took time from a very busy schedule to discuss the environmental aspects of the budget decisions facing the Legislature in its final days. Here's an edited version of their conversation. 

Martha Baskin: The budget rolled out by House Democrats last week would have cut the  Puget Sound Partnership by 31 percent or $1.7 million dollars. What turned things around?

Martha Kongsgaard: Well, let’s just remember how budgets are created. You have to take the perspective of the entire legislative budget process. I mean the Senate introduced a budget this morning [Tuesday, Feb. 28], which is sort of part three of a five part process, a dance that’s extremely fluid and is going to conclude hopefully by March 8 if they get out of there on time.

It’s the Governor’s budget first, the House budget second. Third is the Senate budget and then there’s the conference budget and the governor signs the final budget. I mean there are a lot of moving parts and wheeling and dealing and sausage making as we say. But in this economy, as in an up economy, it’s a human process that’s not very linear so what made this happen I think, is they heard from the community. There’s probably never been a time when the approach that the Partnership was asked to take in 2007, when it was formed with bipartisan support, is needed more than ever. It’s really work that’s about collaboration and prioritization and accountability, that’s happening at the Partnership to sort of oversee this behemoth, and get us all on the same wave length. And that we’re doing the right things first, the science based prioritized right things first, and second, and third, so we know where we are in this journey to get to 2020.

Q: So this particular hurdle has been passed. But it won’t be good enough if cuts to other environmental programs — and there are numerous cuts on the table — take place.  Am I right?

Kongsgaard: It’s true. It’s important that the Partnership remain capable of doing its core responsibilities. But a partnership without healthy partners is sort of a pyrrhic victory. We rely on our partners together we get this done. And if for example the Department of Ecology management staff is cut, which is floating around, you know the enforcement and the effectiveness of what they do and how they carry out their work is really eroded. That bill is about $1.7 million.

Will that money be restored? That’s part of the push and pull of a democracy. But the budget for the Recreation and Conservation Office, which oversees the Salmon Recovery Board, is almost zeroed out. There’s a 50% staff in reduction for salmon recovery. Everybody from the tribes to the cities and counties around this region will tell you salmon recovery is absolutely at the heart of what the Partnership action agenda is calling for. If we can get salmon recovery you’ve got Puget Sound recovery and to cut that office is pretty much a catastrophe.

I do know that the Conservation Commission and conservation districts were both originally eliminated in the proposed supplemental operating budget in the House and it looks they’ve been restored in both the House and the Senate budget, so that’s good news. They’re incredibly important partners. So in a world where the natural resource budget is a tiny fraction of the overall state budget (1%), when you hack at it we feel it. You know no one wants to get into the argument of pitting orca whales against schools.  That shouldn’t be the discussion. We can’t let that be the discussion.

Question: Can you give me more numbers and names of program in jeopardy?

Kongsgaard: Let’s see, $1,763,000 from the management staff at the Department of Ecology. That staff is responsible for enforcement and effectiveness of Ecology’s programs. Then there are small items that really amount to a lot. For example there’s a 50% reduction in technical assistance at the Department of Commerce for the update of the local Shoreline Management Plans. They haven’t been updated in 30 years. That’s about $100,000 dollar hit. That doesn’t sound like a lot but the cities and counties are being hugely cut in this budget. There’s just not the money and the Legislature is saying to cities and counties we don’t have it to give you so you’re sort of going to be on your own but on top of that we’re piling a lot of things on top of them. These plans are going to be central to our ability to have a cogent, understandable system along the shoreline that the public understands and buys into.

Question: Let’s move to curbing stormwater runoff, a key Partnership action agenda. How will proposed Senate and House budgets impact that?

Kongsgaard: Runoff is a problem cities and counties are obligated to deal with under the Clean Water Act. Where to begin on this? The message has to be sent loud and clear to the Legislature that the number one issue plaguing the Sound is this very diffuse monster called stormwater runoff. It’s the rain that transports the toxins that lie on the impervious surfaces all around the sound.

You know we live in a world where there are no more bad guys because the Clean Water Act has largely helped us come to grips with the point source pollution. But it really is how we’re living on the landscape and how we’re living, how we get to work, how and when we drive, how transit is deployed. This stormwater issue is what’s going to kill us by a death by a thousand rain falls and rain drops. So the tool that we’re going to use, as incomplete as it is and as hard it is and expensive as it is to try to get a handle on stormwater, are the NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) permits that cities and counties have to use to come to grips with stormwater. This is not a new fact. Cities and counties know this is happening. It’s the update of the NPDES permit that comes from the Department of Ecology who’s charged by the national EPA with Clean Water Act assurances. Without that tool or with a delay in that tool, certainly for Puget Sound, it really undercuts the tool that we have to fight stormwater and get a handle on stormwater.

There’s a suggestion that the House and the Senate want to delay the permit by three years or make it voluntary. Both are absolute nonstarters. If we were to do that, I think anybody who’s concerned about Puget Sound would say strikes at the very heart of the number one issue in Puget Sound.

Question: What’s the likelihood of that happening?

Kongsgaard: I think it’s very much up in the air. I know that the governor is really our greatest champion on Puget Sound and she’s very clear that the stormwater permit is a tool that we absolutely have to have. So I know she’s walking the halls. The environmental community is walking the halls and I hope that the community who cares about PS will sound the alarm that this is just a non-starter that we can’t delay this.

Question: In 2010 the Partnership was accused by the media and others of mismanagement and cost overruns. Where do things stand now?

Kongsgaard: As chair of the Partnership I firmly believe it has been huge “value add.”  As we were creating the ship, as we were flying the ship; did we make some mistakes, did we have some management setbacks? Absolutely, we were a very, very young organization. But that story first of all is an old story that has been told and retold.

We are doing something in this region, in this greenest region of probably the greenest corner of America. Some people will describe this place as like no other place in the Americas. I would say there's a profound, almost indigenous land ethic that comes with living here. We have an incredibly passionate environmental brain trust and I would put David Dicks, who was our first ED [executive director] in that cohort, smack in the middle.

I think we have a real optimistic, entrepreneurial depth in this region that makes this experiment this Puget Sound Partnership experiment possible. It’s a place that has matured into the idea of collective impact, where it’s more than a collaboration; it's more than a network; it may be more than even a partnership. It’s a place and a time where we are setting ourselves up to come together around a goal, which we set as the leadership council . The goal started under David’s leadership and Gerry O’Keefe, the new ED, has really shepherded this beautifully. So we we’re at a point where we know what 2020 looks like. We’ve described what recovery is. We have numeric targets and we are all as a region shooting for this.

And you know the partnership is not a regulatory agency and so you have to ask yourself where else in the country would people come around the table  — and I’m talking about the feds and state and locals and cities and tribes at the center and NGO community agreeing that we need to have a goal. And we need to have these targets that are numeric and knowable and measurable. Are we 100% there yet? No, we’re not.

I think we in this region — and honestly I think this more now than I have when I started this — that we understand the need to make that break with the sort of traditional and maybe you could say widely accepted historical distinction between people and environment. We’re beyond that, or that distinction between markets and ecological health. I've got to believe that to get this done we have to live in that place and probably redefine what prosperity and growth are going to mean for the next 100 years.

Q: So what’s going to need to happen to get the legislature to redefine prosperity and growth?

Kongsgaard: There’s only a week left in the session. We all need to weigh in. The former prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland said something very simple in her strong Norwegian accent that has stuck with me every time I’ve been in Olympia or had to make a decision as a policy maker: “Government and what we do, they are just decisions made by human beings ,and these decisions are made when we come together collectively and say how are going to handle this.”

What does the future look like, what do we want to be as a society? That happens best when more people weigh in and let their opinion be known. Whether you’re talking about monitoring money that’s going away or these NPDES permits or low-impact development, they just can’t be bargaining chips. They’re the very strategies the region has got to use to ensure we’re going to make our 2020 recovery goals and beyond. And without them, a perfected Puget Sound Partnership, or a Partnership with a budget that’s been restored, can’t deliver on its mandate, a mandate that was given to us four and half years ago that was loud and clear and bipartisan. We can’t lose heart when it gets sticky and hard.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.