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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.
The Senate budget assumes the department's leasing costs can be reduced by slightly more than $2 million including $650,000 by closing the Bellingham office. But the department looked at closing the Bellingham office in 2009, and noted that its current lease runs through 2017. Consequently, closing the Bellingham office would require the ecology department to pay $1.2 million to buy out the existing lease plus another $100,000 in moving costs, according to state figures.
Hudgins said that closing the Bellingham office wouldn't reduce the work load but it might cut into the department's ability to carry out its responsibilities. "One interpretation is that someone doesn't want the inspectors around so the inspectors don't do as many inspections," Hudgins said.
Ericksen is a veteran lawmaker with strong support from business groups of many kinds and many smaller, local donors in his last campaign, in 2010. He received donations totaling some $4,000 from BP North America Employee PAC, Conoco Phillips and Tesoro but that was a small portion of the more than $170,000 in contributions he reported. And, as a Republican committee leader with a recent zero rating from Washington Conservation Voters, he would typically attract significant business support.
Both the Bellevue and Bellingham offices had staffers respond to last week's collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River.
Ultimately, the Senate's budget proposal would trim $7.4 million and 34.9 full-time-equivalent employees statewide from the Ecology Department's water resource programs, which would translate to the state tackling 126 fewer water rights decisions a year. Meanwhile, watershed management programs in the Dungeness, Walla Walla and the Wenatchee basins would be trimmed because of the loss of $2.3 million and two employees.
The state's environmental assessment programs would lose $1.4 million and 5.8 full-time-equivalent employees, which would reduce or eliminate marine mooring activities in Puget Sound, some groundwater monitoring, checking the effectiveness of efforts at reducing nutrients in sewage plant effluents and groundwater runoff.
Air-quality programs would lose $1.4 million and 6.5 full-time-equivalent employees, which would reduce such monitoring across the state.
If water resource programs are a top priority, money can be shifted to them from other parts of the budget, Ericksen said.
For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.