Note to Olympia: hands off

With the Legislature poised this week to blow up tax-limiting Initiative 960, it’s clear that to most Democrats, every dollar in sight has a target on it.

That includes $38 million the state and the Port of Everett were awarded in a legal settlement with Asarco to clean up several hundred acres of contaminated land in North Everett. It’s money the port fought long and hard to win; cash that often appeared out of reach because of Asarco’s tenuous financial health.

More than two years ago, the port partnered with the state to pursue the settlement, compromising its own individual claim with the understanding that the state would use the proceeds to remove lead, arsenic and other heavy metals from soil and groundwater near Asarco’s former copper smelter. Last year, the Legislature created a special account for such settlement money.

Now, port officials suspect, that money is being eyeballed by legislative budget writers to help balance the state’s $2.8 billion budget shortfall. The reckless abandon displayed in the complete dismantling of I-960, which voters passed just two years ago, lends credence to such fears.

Lawmakers should take note: Such moves will not go unnoticed. Money from a settlement that was won at no small effort and legal expense, to address contamination that has poisoned ground in North Everett for more than a century, must not be swept into the black hole that the state general fund has become.

The breach of voter trust reflected in the move to sack all the provisions of I-960 — not just the two-thirds vote requirement to raise taxes, but all the transparency steps that went along with it — would seem to cast doubt on previous agreements on how money is to be spent.

This one, however, appears to be legally protected — another reason lawmakers should stay away from it. The federal bankruptcy court that approved the settlement ordered that the $38 million be directed to the state for the purpose of cleaning up the North Everett property. Going after it would almost certainly land the state in court, costing taxpayers of the state, port, and perhaps the city of Everett, even more.

Legislative Democrats are clearly proceeding down a path that avoids making the tough decisions required to bring spending into line with revenue, perpetuating budget problems well into the future. The more they choose paths of perceived lesser resistance — like raising taxes and diverting designated dollars from environmental cleanup — the more reason voters will have to clean house in November.