Washington state lawmakers will have to come up with $3 billion in additional funding for more than 900 fish barrier removal projects if they’re to reach a 2030 deadline set by a federal court injunction. However, recent funding maneuvers during this year’s legislative session had still left an bitter taste in the mouths of some legislators. During a July 25 Joint Transportation Committee meeting, concerns raised by lawmakers highlighted constitutional and legal questions, as well as the long-term implications on how future policies crafted by the legislature could be altered after the fact.
In his 2019-21 budget proposal, Governor Jay Inslee included almost $300 million for fish barrier removal. However, the legislature ultimately appropriated $100 million. In response, Inslee ordered the Washington State Department of Transportation to shift $175 million left over from other projects to fish culverts through Section 601 of the operating budget.
State Office of Financial Management (OFM) Senior Budget Assistant Dean Carlson told committee members that section is intended to give WSDOT flexibility with leftover money.
However, Inslee’s decision was questioned by several lawmakers on both sides of the aisle at the July 25 meeting. Sen. Curtis King (R-13) said the legislature had already created a list of projects to be funded should WSDOT have leftover money. “I’m curious as to how you think this $175 million is going to impact what the legislature has already said we want to do with some of that re-appropriated money.”
Carlson said:“you got two kind of conflicting processes here, and this is the one that the government chose to use. It is a very limited scope; it is for fish barrier projects, and fish barrier projects that are already on the project list.”
Echoing King’s apprehensions was Rep. Jim Walsh (R-19). “While I see value in the amount of money the governor wants to move…what this effectively does is it allows the executive branch to re-budget the transportation budget that we put together during session. It seems to me that the size and broad scope of this makes it problematic.”
He added that “the size of this transfer runs against that appropriating authority which by intent was supposed to be, frankly, a small thing…no matter how much we agree that the amount is the right amount needed for the project.”
Rep. Vandana Slatter (D-48) also expressed worry regarding how the funds were transferred. “I appreciate that urgency and the need for this in terms of the injunction but….when we look to deliver this injunction and all of these culverts, we’re not looking at just $275 million dollars over the next 10 years. We’re really looking at around $3 billion. If we’re not having a really robust dialogue around this, I am concerned about Section 601 being used…without having that collaboration.”
Reiterating points previously made by WSDOT, Carlson said the process used to appropriate those funds could not be used again. OFM Legislative Liaison Scott Merriman said that “during session we had a long and lengthy conversations with many of you on a bipartisan basis about how to approach it, and at the end of the day we know the outcome of that decision.
He warned legislators that the “risks to the state are really high if we don’t make it” by the 2030 deadline. “I think failure is not an option here because if you look at…the remedies that are available, I don’t think you’ll like those, either.”
Over the next two years WSDOT plans to remove 25 barriers, with 90-100 planned and ready to begin once funding is available. Current funding since 2013-15 and through the 2029-31 biennium totals $739 million, while WSDOT estimates the final price tag to be around $3.8 billion.
The court injunction covers almost 1,000 fish culverts, with 415 in need of correction by 2030 and affects 90 percent of blocked fish habitat. However, there are also thousands of other fish culverts located on local and county roads. The state Brian Abbott Fish Barrier Removal Board recently announced $25 million in grants to fund more than 50 projects in 20 counties and open up 82 miles of streams for fish.
Yet, remarks by Merriman emphasized higher priority for WSDOT culverts. Any funding for local and county culverts should come second, he added. “While it may make policy and biological sense to include our local government partners who are behind us in trying to provide a comprehensive solution to put more fish on the ground (and) in the water, the state isn’t legally required to do that. That’s not what the injunction is about. Any additional investments to help make a better biological investment needs to be in addition and on top of what we have to do for the state to meet that injunction.”