Environmentalists suggest ways to avoid budget cuts

By REBECCA COOK The Associated Press
1/8/03 8:09 PM

OLYMPIA (AP) -- Environmentalists suggested ways to avoid cuts in the state's natural resources budget on Wednesday, including a list of possible permit and user fees, as they outlined their agenda for the upcoming legislative session.

The governor's proposed budget provides "too little to protect our air, land and water," said Josh Baldi, policy director of the Washington Environmental Council.

They also talked about how the Legislature should respond to the defeat of Referendum
51, which would have increased gas taxes to pay for transportation. Peter Hurley, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, said his group supports a three-cent gas tax increase to pay for basic maintenance and safety, plus a 1 percent car excise tax to pay for transportation "choices" such as buses, vanpools and trains.

Anything more than that, Hurley said, should go to the voters. "Before increasing taxes, we need to fix the system that voters clearly don't have confidence in," he added.

The state agencies charged with protecting the environment amount to less than 2 percent of the budget. As the state faces a $2 billion budget hole, however, even small agencies are vulnerable to cuts.

Mindful of the pressure on budget writers, environmentalist leaders took care to propose funding solutions and not just whine about proposed cuts.

For example, the governor's budget proposes closing some state parks. Baldi said the Legislature could increase the .5 percent recreational boat excise tax, or charge a similar tax on recreational vehicles (RVs), and use the money to support parks.

Baldi also suggested creating a new fee on diesel machinery to fund clean air programs, or increasing the $10 water rights permitting fee to pay for improvements in that program.

"There's a feeling among voters, if you're going to have a tax or a fee it should be connected to the services that are being provided," Baldi said.

There's also a feeling among voters that they dislike new taxes and fees, as numerous initiative and referendum votes have demonstrated.

"That's not a user tax, that's just a hit on boaters," said David Kutz, a vice president of the Recreational Boating Association of Washington, a 10,000-strong group whose members would raise a ruckus if the Legislature proposed increasing the boat tax.

The last time anyone proposed increasing water rights permit fees was in 1993, Ecology Department spokeswoman Sheryl Hutchison said, when the Legislature nixed the idea.
She said she thinks some permit applicants would understand the need to increase fees, but the potential backlash would grow along with the size of the fee increase.

Baldi praised Gov. Gary Locke for including $700,000 in his budget to phase out toxic chemicals and $2 million for shoreline protection.

Environmentalists also outlined other priorities for this Legislative session, including:

--Phasing out the sale of products that contain mercury, a neurotoxin that's especially harmful to pregnant women and young children, when cost-effective replacement products are available; also, requiring manufacturers of products containing mercury to pay for recycling and disposal programs.

--Creating a state transportation package that allocates a third of the money for mass transit and other alternatives to highway driving. Hurley said the Department of Transportation also needs to regain consumer confidence. He said the Legislature should pass a transportation accountability and reform package this year.

--Resisting efforts at "permit streamlining"; long sought by the business community and favored by many Republicans, environmentalists worry this idea would sacrifice important environmental protections.

------ On the Net:

Recreational Boaters: http://www.rbaw.org
Environmental Council: http://www.wecprotects.org


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