The GOP moved two bills out of separate committees today that, when combined, wreak environmental damage, Democrats complained.
First, along a 3-2 party line vote, the senate's environment committee passed committee chair senator Doug Ericksen's (R-42, Ferndale) bill to shift money out of the ecology department and trim its staff.
Second, the senate's economic development committee voted 4-2 along party lines to approve senator Sharon Brown's (R-8, Kennewick) bill to speed up state environmental reviews on many projects.
Senator John McCoy (D-38, Tulalip), a member of both committees, argued that the two bills constitute a coordinated assault on environmental regulations by gutting the ecology department, which in turn, undermines the department’s ability to do a good job with the briefer deadline’s in Brown’s bill.
Ericksen's bill would take money already budgeted in 2015 from ecology department programs including paying for people in field offices—and move it to the toxic cleanup account, which has been shifting money to ecology for years. No firm figures were provided for how many ecology department jobs would be eliminated . But McCoy speculated 80 to 300 employees could be cut if the bill passes.
No firm budget figures were available Wednesday, but a Democratic press release claimed Ericksen’s bill could shift $74 million from several ecology department programs.
Shifting money back to the voter-approved toxic cleanup account sounds like a good idea, but McCoy argued the bill sabotages itself by reviving toxic clean-up efforts while simultaneously eliminating people available to do that work. “We have no idea of the unintended consequences.”
“I feel like this is blowing it up without going to a … discussion on what this is about,” Laura Berg, of the Washington Association of Counties, said during testimony on the bill in committee today.
Meanwhile, Brown’s bill to fast track environmental review addresses the fact that both the state and feds have mandatory environmental reviews on a large number of construction-related projects. Brown’s bill would require the state to finish its environmental within 30 days of the completion of a federal review, or within 60 days of an application for a state review if a federal review is not required.
Currently, no such deadlines exist.
Tom Clingman, representing the Department of Ecology, protested at today's committee hearing that the state often has broader responsibilities and interests in its own environmental reviews than the feds, who might have a narrower interest in an issue. “The time frames in the bill are simply too short,” Clingman said.
Committee members Ericksen and Brown, who is the chair, noted that the Skagit River bridge was replaced in three weeks after collapsing. This was an example, they said, of state government being able to easily streamline the bureaucratic processes in a big construction project.
“[But] that’s because they were building a [replacement] bridge in the place with the same footprint,” McCoy said about the speedy process.
The Association of Washington Business, the Washington State Building & Construction Trades Council, the Washington Farm Bureau and the BNSF Railroad supported Brown’s bill Wednesday. “If you’re a business, why invest in any project with an open-ended environmental process?” said Mike Ennis of the building trades council.
Both bills have good chances of passing the GOP-dominated Senate, but face a huge obstacle in the Democratic house.