Budget battles
5:54 pm
Mon February 14, 2011

Enviro Groups Urge Higher Resource User Fees

Lawmakers in Olympia are proposing to slash or even eliminate dozens of important programs and services, as they struggle to eliminate a nearly $5 billion budget gap.

Environmental groups are hoping to stave off what they say would be crippling budget cuts to natural resource agencies in charge of protecting water, air and forests. But with education and health care for the poor on the chopping block, they face a tough battle.

One tactic? Raising user fees.

An example:

The Department of Natural Resources administers logging rules designed to protect salmon and prevent erosion. A DNR permit to harvest timber costs as little as $50. Peter Goldman – with the Washington Forest Law Center – says that’s not getting the job done.

“This is a program that, quite frankly, has been starved of resources. And it shows when you look at these compliance monitoring reports.”

Goldman’s referring to a recent DNR report showing that a significant number of logging operations fail to follow environmental rules. With the program facing another 20 percent budget cut on top of last years’ cuts, Goldman is pushing to hike logging permit fees to keep more DNR inspectors in the field.

Timber companies say higher fees would hurt their business. Rick Dunning, with the Washington Farm Forestry Association told the Tacoma News Tribune that small timberland owners are already struggling to make ends meet.

Still under consideration

According to his spokesman Bryan Flint, DNR chief Peter Goldmark is discussing with the governor whether increasing fees would be appropriate – or even doable (after voters passed Initiative 1053 last fall, all state fees must be approved by the legislature).

Flint says there’s another problem: Even large fee increases wouldn’t come close to eliminating the need for tax money to pay for forestry programs. For example, DNR’s forest practices program has a budget of about $20 million. Permit fees currently bring in about $375,000 a year.

Other agencies, such as the Department of Ecology and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, are facing similar cutbacks, and environmental groups are recommending increases in other fees such as:

  •  a water management fee of from $50 to $1,000, to be paid by irrigators and others who divert large amounts of state water. The funds would cover about half the cost of administering the water management program
  • extending a $3 fee that funds work to prevent boats from bringing invasive species into state waters
  •  an oil spill transfer fee on bulk oil transferred onto vessels to pay for oil spill prevention and response.