Dear Friends and Neighbors,
I hope you are enjoying the summer. I just returned from a memorable trip with my children to Louisiana, where I grew up.
The 2011 legislative session ended May 25, after a 30-day special session. Here's my review of what happened in Olympia. I hope you find it informative.
With a $5 billion shortfall in the operating budget, the Legislature faced a crossroads. The state could continue down an unsustainable path, putting Band-Aids on a leaking bathtub, or it could make difficult decisions this year to put our economy on a better trajectory for the next decade.
While some positive steps were made toward reforming some government services, it was simply not enough. I voted against the operating budget because it will not prove to be sustainable. Even the revenue forecast we received in June will force the state to use up a good portion of the ending fund balance left at the end of May. The budget does not address any of the long-term deficits that have created challenges for the state budget for years.
In addition, the budget contains too many fee increases, and many of them are more like taxes than fees. Voters spoke unequivocally last year that they wanted the government to live within its means. This budget does not adequately respond to voters' desires.
Instead, as I have written to you, I supported an alternative budget. This proposal set clear priorities and principles for a good budget, would have put education first, and made the difficult decisions now about programs our state can no longer afford. Unfortunately, this proposal did not move forward.
I've heard from several of you who are upset that over Independence Day weekend you were charged a fee to use your state parks. While the agencies involve claim this will support state parks, a portion of the proceeds will go toward general government services in the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. That makes it a tax, not a fee, and I want you to know I strongly opposed it as it moved through the session.
Some looked to parks as a place to cut funding from the budget in order to move toward a fee-supported parks system. I argued for the general fund to continue funding parks to keep it affordable for every family. There are other options, as well, including looking to existing volunteer groups to maintain parks, allowing communities to take over maintenance of a park, and keeping parks open that are used the most and closing others less used.
Unfortunately, the outcome of this session was a fee, called the Discover Pass, to use your parks. It costs $30 for an annual pass to use a park or $10 for each visit without the annual pass. Some hunters and fishers will be exempt if they currently carry a license for their sport. To find out more about this fee, visit www.discoverpass.wa.gov. If you have any additional questions or concerns, please feel free to call my office at the information at the end of this letter.
Water fees: stopped
Before session began, the Department of Ecology introduced a proposal to address pending water rights applications by increasing fees to allow for “cost recovery” for land owners to use water. This would have given the agency the authority to adopt increased fees by making rules. Currently, the Legislature sets any fees for water permitting. I opposed this transfer of authority to an unelected agency and think these decisions should remain with the people you directly hire.
Much of what Ecology's water resources program does is in response to protecting the public interest – not to benefit individual constituents. Those activities should be paid for out of the general fund. Rather than proposing massive fee increases, state government should do more with less just as you have. I am pleased this legislation did not pass. We must expect more from state agencies – we cannot settle for the same services at a higher cost.
One of the greatest threats to agriculture and private lands is the lack of available water for crops and daily use. And yet, our state has an abundance of resources, through the Columbia River, the Puget Sound and many other bodies of water. An important part of water management is water storage, so that we have the water when it's needed and where it's needed. I will continue to ensure this strategy will be part of water management plans going forward.
I'm very focused on helping restore our economy during these difficult times. Because of this, I'm attending several events in the next month to help address economic issues:
July 18 Goldendale Chamber of Commerce
July 19-22 Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER), Portland – discussing water issues affecting the Columbia River
August 2-7 American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), New Orleans (no cost to taxpayers) – discussing national water issues
It's very important that I meet with you and hear your ideas, too. Feel free to stop me around town, or we can set up a time to sit down and chat. My contact information is below.
It's an honor to serve you.