Whatcom County's senators try unity, end up in discord on environment


Kevin Ranker Doug Ericksen

Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island), left, and Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale).


This year was supposed to be different.

After Republicans took over the state Senate in December, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, spoke of an "unprecedented opportunity to change the way Olympia operates." The Senate, controlled by a coalition of all 23 Republicans and two Democrats, would pass bills on their policy merits, not for political reasons, he said.

Ericksen and his rival, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, showed signs early in the session of working together to pass environmental legislation. With the regular session over and a locally important environmental bill still alive for the special session that starts Monday, May 13, that cooperation appears to have unraveled.

Ericksen, chairman of the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, and Ranker, the committee's ranking member, have drastically different priorities on the environment. Even so, they initially found common ground beyond the fact that they both represent Whatcom County.

"I think we share a common goal of ... protecting our environment," Ericksen said in January, before the session began. "It's just the mode by which we get there that matters."

Ranker said he is proud of a bill that passed out of Ericksen's committee and became one of the first bills signed by Gov. Jay Inslee - a climate change bill sponsored by Ranker and introduced by the governor that creates a five-member work group to come up with recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"That's how we tried to set the tone originally with the governor's bill - move it out quick and not take it hostage and play political games with it," Ericksen said.

Ranker doesn't give Ericksen credit for rising above political gamesmanship. Ranker said Ericksen "gutted" the bill. References to the effects of global warming on Washington were removed. Ericksen made the governor, one of three Democrats in the work group, a nonvoting member, setting up the group for deadlock, Ranker said.

The voting members are Democrats Ranker and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon of Burien, and Republicans Ericksen and Rep. Shelly Short of northeast Washington.

"We can still move forward if the Republicans want to have a discussion," Ranker said. "What concerns me is the chair isn't willing to admit we have a climate problem." Ranker was referring to Ericksen, who described himself as a "climate agnostic."

Ranker often points out that Ericksen scored a zero recently on a Washington Conservation Voters legislative scorecard. Ericksen, meanwhile, touts his environmentalism, especially with his Model Toxics Control Act bill that passed the Senate late in the regular session.

"If I was a Democrat and I introduce my MoTCA reform bill, I would be legislator of the year," Ericksen said.

Clifford Traisman, who lobbies on behalf of Washington Conservation Voters and other environmental groups, said that goes beyond overstatement.

"I'm speechless on how ridiculous that notion is," Traisman said.

The MoTCA bill is not the environmental achievement Ericksen makes it out to be, Traisman said. It is his groups' No. 1 concern headed into the special session.

"That bill we vigorously oppose," Traisman said. "It's a major rewrite of a highly successful piece of environmental law."

The toxics act created a tax on hazardous materials, including fuels, to pay for cleanup projects and the proper disposal of hazardous and solid waste. Traisman said Ericksen's reform bill was written and advanced too hastily.

Local officials are watching the bill closely, as it could speed up the decontamination of sites on Bellingham's waterfront.

The cornerstone of the bill, the Environmental Legacy Stewardship Account, was intended to symbolize the two senators' cooperation. Ericksen spoke proudly of how "ELSA" was the name of both his young daughter and Ranker's daughter.

It so happens the name of Ranker's 5-year-old daughter is pronounced the same but spelled "Else."

"We had a laugh about that, and we still get along," Ranker said.

He and Ericksen's personal relationship may be intact, but the spelling confusion only seems to highlight their political disconnect. Ranker voted against the MoTCA bill, which passed the Senate mostly along party lines.

"He and I both have an ultimate goal of saving the MoTCA money, spending it where it ought to be spent ... and employing people," Ranker said. "That's where our commonality ends, unfortunately."

Ranker said his biggest concern with the bill is the very account that was to be named after his daughter. The original legislation has already created state and local funds, which have been raided in recent years to balance the general-fund budget.

"The creation of a third account does nothing to protect those moneys, nothing. The only way to protect those moneys is to spend them," Ranker said.

Ranker said even senators on Ericksen's side of the aisle asked him to approach Ericksen to work out a compromise so the bill could pass. Ericksen stuck to his guns on ELSA, blocking any agreement, Ranker said.

"On six different occasions I went to Doug to find a compromise. 'With you and I lock-stride in this, it will go all the way to the governor,'" Ranker said.

The Republican senator said he did compromise.

"Throughout the course of the negotiation it was one compromise after another. The original bill introduced was changed no less than eight times," Ericksen said. "We were reaching out to the business community, construction, environmental groups, to find a solution that could work for everybody. We incorporated suggestions by Ranker."

Brandon Houskeeper, government affairs director at the Association of Washington Business, said Ericksen's willingness to bring diverse groups to the table was a trademark of his leadership style and a "marked difference" from that of Ranker, who last year chaired a similar committee, Energy, Natural Resources and Marine Waters.

When Ericksen first introduced the toxics cleanup bill, it was very raw, Houskeeper said.

"Especially as a first-time chair, I think there's been some growing pains for him," Houskeeper said.

"Ericksen has ideas. He gives everybody a chance to come in and talk about those ideas with him," he said.

Traisman, the environmental lobbyist, had a different take on Ericksen's leadership. He said the MoTCA bill was crafted "without stakeholder input."

Neither senator is sending much of a signal that they will work together during the special session. Each accuses the other of what the Republicans, before the session started, said wouldn't happen - placing politics ahead of policy.

"My hope is he and I can find a way to work together, but that's going to mean compromise and so far I haven't seen that," Ranker said.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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