Injecting politics into parks

The problem isn’t the amount of money that the state Senate has set aside in its capital budget for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition’s grant program.

Each year, for the last 25 years, the coalition has taken responsibility for shepherding a list of potential grant recipients for the Legislature’s consideration to provide matching funds that help to establish and improve new local and state parks, protect wildlife habitat and preserve working farms. As with other programs and agencies that are funded every two years in the state’s operating and capital budgets, the Wildlife and Recreation grant program has been able to provide more in some years, less in others. For the 2007-09 biennium for example, the grant program distributed $100 million to projects across the state. Recent years have been leaner but still accomplished much. The Legislature in the 2013-15 biennium secured $65 million for more than 80 projects.

This year looks to improve on the last budget’s mark. The coalition proposed a list of projects totaling $97 million. The House’s capital budget set the spending at $75 million. And the Senate budgeted $68.8 million, very close to the $70 million that Gov. Jay Inslee had proposed in his budget.

Snohomish County, by the way, was to see about $4.5 million of matching funds for projects, including Edmonds’ acquisition of the Civic Center Field, a skate park in Darrington and habitat acquisition for Maltby’s Hooven Bog Conservation Area.

Since its inception in 1989, the grant program has used an independent and objective process to rank the hundreds of projects that seek funding, a process that was set out in the state law that created it. Projects are objectively ranked on criteria that include community support, immediate threat by development, enhancement of habitat, quality of views, diversity of uses, public demand and more.

Except for this year, as far as the Senate is concerned.

In setting aside its $68.8 million, the Senate has assumed the authority to rerank the list and make its own choices as to which projects will be funded. For the most part this has meant that parks projects have been favored over habitat acquisition. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Carrie Shaw, spokeswoman for the mostly Republican Senate caucus, said property purchases were being suspended for two years to fund a backlog of parks construction.

That might be a legitimate goal, but the Senate’s action scuttles an objective and fair process that has worked for 25 years for one that would now be open to the politics of lobbying, earmarks, horse-trading and pandering for votes.

Perhaps legislators are eager to attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies at new parks. But their action ignores the recreational opportunities for hunters, anglers, hikers, birdwatchers and others, not to mention the parks themselves, that the property acquisitions have provided over the years.

If legislators want to consider changes to the criteria that are used to rank the projects, then they are free to attempt to amend the law.

In seeking to make their own choices about which projects should make the cut every two years, the senators risk creating a headache for themselves and political competitions among communities as they request funding for their projects.

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