Senate budget puts emphasis on environmental cleanups, Ericksen says

— Millions redirected to environmental cleanups

— Reduces pressure for tax increases

— Forces healthy reexamination of budgeting practices

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

OLYMPIA – The budget plan released Wednesday by the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus makes environmental cleanup a top priority, observes state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee.

The Senate budget suspends the diversion of funds from the state’s cleanup tax, known as the Hazardous Substances Tax, to purposes that have nothing to do with environmental cleanup. That frees up enough money to complete $77 million in cleanup projects.

“When tax receipts decline, we have to set priorities,” Ericksen said. “Environmental cleanup needs to be job number one.”

The Senate’s action is prompted by a decline in oil prices that caused tax receipts to fall and left the tax account overallocated. The Senate budget plan postpones $15.7 million in grants that were to have been issued by the Department of Ecology by June 30, 2017, to environmental groups, shoreline planning programs and stormwater projects. It reduces capital budget appropriations by $61.8 million.

Money comes from a tax approved by voters in 1988 to pay for cleanup of polluted sites where no owner could be held responsible – a state version of the federal Superfund. Although the original purposes of the Model Toxics Control Act were clear, tax receipts skyrocketed with oil prices and lawmakers began using the money for other purposes. Of $2.2 billion raised by the cleanup tax, only 48 percent actually went to cleanup – the rest was used to prop up the state budget and pay for Ecology programs.

“This is the environmentally responsible thing to do,” Ericksen explained. “Cleanup has always been the best way to spend this money, and when money runs short, this is where it should go. We create jobs when we clean up sites, and we create more jobs when the land goes back into productive use. Next year we may have money available to restore these grant programs. But there is a big difference between a must-have and a nice-to-have.”