Proposal to boost Washington state's hazardous-substances tax gaining momentum
Environmentalists seeking to clean up Puget Sound may be on the verge of a major political victory, with a proposal to boost the state's hazardous-substances tax to deal with polluted stormwater gaining traction in the closing days of the legislative session. The push comes despite new petroleum-industry threats to sue the state and invalidate the hazardous-substances tax, created by a voter initiative more than two decades ago.
Seattle Times political reporter
OLYMPIA — Environmentalists seeking to clean up Puget Sound may be on the verge of a major political victory, with a proposal to boost the state's hazardous-substances tax to deal with polluted stormwater gaining traction in the closing days of the legislative session.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee voted Tuesday in favor of a bill nearly doubling the tax, paid largely by oil refineries, to raise $80 million a year for stormwater-cleanup projects across the state.
Supporters say they're close to the 25 votes needed to pass the bill out of the full Senate and believe they have majority support in the House. Gov. Chris Gregoire also backs the idea.
"We feel like we've got the most momentum we have had in memory to come up with the funding for Puget Sound and dealing with stormwater," said Cliff Traisman, state lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters.
The push comes despite new petroleum-industry threats to sue the state and invalidate the hazardous-substances tax, created by a voter initiative more than two decades ago.
Known as the state Model Toxics Control Act, the tax is levied on more than 8,000 chemical substances deemed hazardous by the state, and is supposed to pay for cleanup of toxic sites.
Lawmakers in recent years have raided those proceeds to balance the state's operating-budget gap — grabbing $180 million just last year.
Critics argue it's hypocritical for the Legislature to increase the tax for a new environmental cleanup program when they've been stealing the existing funds.
"This thing is liked a cocked gun," said Tim Hamilton, executive director of the Automotive United Trades Organization (AUTO) which represents hundreds of gas stations statewide. "They're going to continue to go down this yellow brick road until somebody says, 'If you take this money again, you're going to go to jail.' "
Hamilton's group hired former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge to draft a lawsuit challenging the tax, which was distributed widely to lawmakers this week.
The lawsuit basically argues the hazardous-substances tax is really a gas tax, which under the 18th Amendment to the Washington Constitution must be spent on highways.
Supporters of the tax have laughed off that objection, noting the tax has been on the books since its creation by Initiative 97 in 1988.
"You would think if they were questioning the constitutionality of it they would have done it then, but for some reason they didn't. Well that's interesting," said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, who helped gather signatures for I-97 and calls expanding the tax a "common sense" approach to make polluters pay for environmental cleanup.
Critics warn that just because the law hasn't been overturned yet, doesn't mean it's safe from a challenge.
Hamilton said the industry held off challenging the law as part of a "gentlemen's agreement" dating back to the passage of I-97.
In exchange for a one-day special legislative session needed to place an alternative initiative on the ballot, the industry agreed not to challenge the legality of I-97, the measure preferred by environmentalists.
When voters sided with I-97, the industry honored its bargain, Hamilton said.
Now the truce is off.
"Just exactly how many things does the state think we can pay for at the pumps? How about schools? How about public health care? Where does it end?" said Hamilton.
Dozens of employees and managers of the state's five oil refineries packed public hearings on the tax proposal earlier during the legislative session, pleading with lawmakers to reject the tax increase, which they said could threaten their jobs.
But environmentalists have been pressing for a steady funding source to clean up stormwater polluted with oil, grease and other chemicals that threaten the health of Puget Sound and other waterways.
The bill passed out of the Senate committee Tuesday is a slimmed-down version of the original proposal, which would have tripled the tax from the current 0.7 percent to 2 percent — raising more than $200 million a year.
Lawmakers had considered using much of that short-term money to close the state's $2.8 billion budget gap, with more going to clean-water projects in later years.
The version approved by the Ways and Means Committee would raise the tax to 1.2 percent, raising an estimated $80 million a year, but with all of it dedicated to stormwater cleanup.
Those details could change in the coming days as supporters try to wrangle votes in the House and Senate.
The regular session is scheduled to end by midnight Thursday. Even if the stormwater cleanup tax doesn't pass by then, Traisman said it has enough support to be considered during a special session.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com
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