One Olympia storyline this session has been that the grim economic situation puts "idealistic" environmental concerns on the back burner as legislators grapple with immediate kitchen table issues like senior care cuts, education funding, and basic health programs.
And as a budget deal seems closer at hand, it looks like two of the environmental community's top legislative priorities—a hazardous substance tax and a green jobs bill—proposals that were tied to the budget, might be in jeopardy.
"We're not getting good signals," says Mo McBroom, lobbyist for the Wasington Environmental Council, which has pushed for increasing the hazardous substance tax, a program voters approved in 1988 to tax toxic stuff like petroleum to pay for storm water clean up. The WEC wanted to raise the tax—for the first time since '88—to increase the tax by .85 percent to 1.5 for $100 million in new revenue.
McBroom says "if the legislature doesn't step up [and pass the tax], property owners and small businesses will end up having to pay for storm water clean up that must get done ... and that's not fair." She adds, "it will be a missed opportunity for labor and the economy not to pass this," referring to the green jobs that come with storm water clean up.
Enviros are in a tricky spot, though. They've been forced to support the current budget (even without the hazardous substance tax) because the current $800 million revenue plan is neccessarry to fund core green programs. The House and Senate have not released the budget that goes along with the current revenue proposal, but the during the regular session, green legislator Rep. Dave Upthegrove (D-33) passed a $7.8 million amendment to fund the Department of Ecology’s hazardous waste cleanup program; its solid waste cleanup program; its toxic cleanup program; its air quality program; its water quality program; its shorelands program; and funding for local watershed planning.
Rep. Upthegrove says the dollars for the core programs are likely to be in the budget that gets hammered out this weekend—because the $800 million in the revenue package can cover the House's wish list. (I'm not so sure: The budget the House passed during the special session clocked in at $857 million.)
If Rep. Upthegrove is right, there's a a cruel irony in it for the hazardous substance tax. Part of the deal that made the tax attractive for legislators—which outweighed the pressure they were getting from the oil industry—is that the $100 million in revenue freed up money for the general fund. But if the current revenue package is a done deal (meaning the hazardous substance tax isn't needed for new revenue), legislators might not be as interested in going for it.
The fate of the green jobs bill, a proposal by Rep. Hans Dunshee (D-44, Southwest Snohomish County) to float $861 million in bonds to pay for green retrofits of public schools, is not known, but the Senate has been reluctant to support it all session for fear of overtaxing the state's bond capacity. Rep. Dunshee told PubliCola he's meeting with Speaker Frank Chopp (D-43, Seattle)—who's been negotiating with the Senate over the budget—to discuss the bill this afternoon.
As we reported earlier today, another green priority, a Sierra Club effort to end a $4 million tax exemption for TransAlta, which operates a coal-powered steam plant in Centralia, is also on the rocks. The money was not counted in the new revenue package.
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