Increased pollution tax urged to bolster state’s budget

OLYMPIA — Environmentalists began publicly pushing a major hike in pollution taxes Friday, unveiling a plan to aid the state’s recession-hobbled budget by raising about $225 million a year, mostly from oil refineries.

It’s a tantalizing possibility for the Democrat-led Legislature, which is trying to find ways to patch a $2.6 billion budget deficit without cutting too deeply into education, health care and social service programs.

Business groups, however, already have mounted a resistance campaign that argues higher pollution taxes would squeeze refinery jobs and wallop consumers at the gas pump.

The pollution-tax plan unveiled Friday would nearly triple the state’s existing hazardous substances tax, which was approved by voters in 1988.

The tax is levied on oil products, pesticides and other chemicals and is earmarked for environmental cleanup projects. State lawmakers, however, tend to raid such dedicated spending accounts when the state’s general checkbook is in trouble.

Environmental groups are asking lawmakers to increase the tax on hazardous substances from 0.7 percent to 2 percent, which they say would generate roughly $225 million annually.

About $156 million of that total would be dedicated to the state’s general fund for the next three years, when lawmakers are looking at major budget deficits. The balance would be distributed to water cleanup and protection projects at the state and local levels.

The slice of money dedicated to the general fund would drop to $79.1 million in 2014-15, and would then be phased out, with the bulk of the revenue dedicated to local government storm- water projects.

Environmentalists have been working on the proposal for weeks, and have lined up key support from the state’s local governments, organized labor and construction trade groups.

Once it is formally introduced, the proposal will be sponsored by Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane.

The state’s leading business groups have organized the Stop WA Hidden Gas Taxes Coalition to oppose the plan, writing legislators earlier this week to argue against the proposal before it was even formally introduced.

Although the tax is levied on an array of substances, the Hidden Gas Taxes Coalition pointed to a state Department of Revenue analysis that showed about 83 percent of its revenue is collected from oil refiners.

Washington has several such facilities, concentrated in the northwestern part of the state.

Raising the pollution tax would hit those refineries hard, coalition spokesman Dave Fisher said, posing a threat to refining jobs and potentially spurring higher gas prices.

“That is bad economic news when we’ve had plenty of bad economic news,” he said.

Supporters, however, countered that sending more money to environmental projects could help the state’s woeful employment picture. December’s unemployment rate was 9.5 percent, the highest since 1984.

“This bill puts people back to work, helps our economy recover, and will leave a lasting legacy of a clean Puget Sound and Spokane River,” Dave Johnson of the Washington State Building Trades Council said in a statement.

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