Toxic habit of raiding hazardous site clean-up fund must end before any talk of tax hike

Man throwing money
Unless the Governor and the Legislature commit to use taxes collected for hazardous waste cleanup on projects that actually clean up that waste, it is unwise to give them an even larger pile of cash. Photo: Freepik.com

Washingtonians do not like hazardous waste. We really don’t.

In poll after poll and through the many other ways that we get the message across to lawmakers, it’s hard to find another issue that has us so harmoniously singing the same tune: we want government to take account of where hazards exist and then make sure that cleanup happens.

We so fervently want these cleanups to be done that 30 years ago we came up with a way to address the reality of sites that would fall through the cracks, in a manner of speaking. We knew that tough environmental laws and regulations at the federal, state and local levels would be effective for pinning the costs of cleanup to the shins of companies making the mess. We also knew, however, that there would always be cases in which landowners or those responsible for hazardous waste would be untouchable, insolvent – or both. Orphan hazardous sites were, are and always will be an inevitable problem.

Thankfully, in 1988, Washingtonians seemed to be in a mood to solve problems, and quickly. (After all, it was during the same era that acid-wash jeans were rushed from “what’s in” to “what’s out” with the assertive force and speed of a bullet train; good evidence that we believed in a mission to mend wounds on the public conscience.)

The passage of Initiative 97 that year established a simple covenant: sellers of hazardous substances would pay a 0.7 percent tax on sales which would feed a limited-use fund that the State Department of Ecology would use to pay for cleanup of orphaned sites.

We should have known better.

Since being authorized, the HST has generated $26 billion but now faces a $69 million shortfall. How much work was done with the total HST largesse over the years? It’s not entirely clear because Ecology doesn’t keep strict account, but the Lens found evidence of only a little more than $87 million, and not all of it spent on orphan sites. The rest appears to have been diverted – the polite term for raided – into general fund spending. One thing Ecology does know is that perhaps 12,500 orphan sites across Washington are waiting to be cleaned.

Now, at present day, Governor Inslee has a proposed budget for 2017-2019 in which he wants to triple the HST to 0.21 percent, as well as institute mechanisms to ratchet the tax up until annual revenues exceed $160 million.

To be sure, that seems like half of an answer.

The problem is, what assurances do we have that the new taxes will be used to fund the projects that were originally supposed to have been funded with the old level of taxation? Doesn’t the increase in the HST just fatten a fund that budgeteers in Olympia have already been accustomed to raiding? Doesn’t the fattening of an easy-to-crack piggybank also remove any incentives for lawmakers to find better sources to fund the programs that are routinely using the HST’s limited-use funds for not-so-limited-in-scope programs?

And, of course, the ultimate problem is that if the government maintains its well-proven faithlessness, we have literally thousands of orphan hazardous waste sites waiting for cleanup.

Unless and until Inslee and the Legislature make a firm commitment to use the taxes collected for hazardous waste cleanup on projects to clean up hazardous waste, and they make it harder for future lawmakers to raid the funds, it is unwise to assume that giving them an even larger pile of petro-cash would be anything more than dangling an even more tempting pot to pilfer.

The existing taxes should be spent as intended – to address real environmental damage in our own backyard – before lawmakers even think about asking for more.

Bryan Myrick is a native Washingtonian who has written about state, local and national politics since 2008 and has worked as a consultant on a number of high-profile ballot measure and candidate campaigns. He graduated from the University of Washington with majors in Political Science and Communications.

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