WA: Locke Budget Pulls Plug on Water Funds



Washington State - Gov. Gary Locke ponders a question Wednesday afternoon when in Yakima to explain his proposed state budget. Locke has chosen to make deep cuts in state programs rather than ask for a tax increase to make up a projected $2.4 billion
The state's nagging backlog of water rights awaiting processing could be delayed under Gov. Gary Locke's budget proposal.

The $23 billion state spending proposal would cut $2 million, or 20 percent, from the Department of Ecology's $10 million budget set aside for shrinking a pile of about 2,000 applications for new or transferred water rights, according to Curt Hart, Ecology spokesman.

"The whole state's facing tough times," Hart said.

The state's central region, including Yakima and Kittitas counties, has some 900 requests pending, more than any other region, according to agency records.

The requests involve changing the place where water is taken, where it is used, or what the water is used for.

Hart noted that a prior backlog of 8,000 applications has been "dramatically reduced."

Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, said that if the Legislature upholds the $2 million cut, processing could be delayed by as much as nine months.

Chandler said the governor's identification of savings from cuts in the water rights and other programs are somewhat illusory because the costs are likely to be incurred in the future.

"My concern is that the proposal doesn't reduce spending but simply pushes it out into the future so that we have to revisit this again in 2005," Chandler said Wednesday.

In Yakima to explain his budget to the editorial board of the Yakima Herald-Republic, Locke said he asked all state agencies to identify priorities and then "purchase" them until they ran out of money.

"If we eliminated programs, we eliminated the employees who carry out these programs," Locke said. His budget, for example, would cut 2,500 state jobs at a savings of $100 million.

The state faces a revenue shortfall of about $2.4 billion if it continues all current services through the next two-year budget.

Locke and lawmakers face what budget analysts say is the worst crunch since recession wracked the state in 1982. At that time, lawmakers resorted to tax increases, but Locke has stopped short of calling for any.

"No amount of sin taxes will solve this problem, and there's no way you can realistically raise the sales tax in this economy," he said.

Locke's budget assumes that about $60 million in new tax revenue will be available from a law passed by the Legislature last year that closed a loophole in the state's use tax. The use tax is akin to a sales tax on wholesale transactions.

The effect of the law is to tax print shops that send direct mail advertising out of state for printing. The advertising is then brought back into the state and used by businesses to sell goods and services.

Locke said he's willing to look at closing other tax loopholes to generate revenue.

Locke's plan identifies water storage as one priority by setting out about $16 million in the capital budget for such projects across the state, including ongoing studies of the Black Rock reservoir proposed for east of Yakima.

At one point, the governor was prepared to support a separate, $1 billion water bond issue backed by a new energy-use tax and municipal water fees, for Black Rock and other water-storage systems around the state.

But the effort dissolved after voters in November resoundingly defeated Referendum 51, a gas-tax and truck-fee increase to pay for roads.

Black Rock, which has a price tag topping $1.8 billion, would store water from the Columbia River behind a 600-foot-tall dam. The dam would double the Yakima Valley's water-storage capacity.

The budget also includes $325,000 for environmental studies for Pine Hollow, a small reservoir proposed on Ahtanum Creek, west of Yakima.


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