Whatcom County legislators can claim few victories in short session


In a year when state legislators suggested they were more interested in adjourning on time than anything else, it's no surprise the three Democrats and three Republicans representing Whatcom County got little done.

If state leaders are to improve the safety of trains transporting oil from the Dakotas - even a symbolic gesture, such as asking the U.S. Congress to do something - they will need to wait until next year.

A major renovation of Carver Gym at Western Washington University? Legislators can take yet another look at that in 2015.

What about extending incentives for solar panels on homes? Giving farmers who irrigate more efficiently some flexibility with their water rights? Maybe next year.

The water-use bill, championed by Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, was brought to a halt when local tribes objected.

"None of the tribes were positive or favorable toward it," Buys said. "We're going to come back next year and continue working on that one."

The bill would have allowed farmers who switched to drip irrigation, which uses less water, to move their water rights from one field to another. The bill passed the Senate easily but was brought to a halt in a House committee.

Lummi Nation on Feb. 14 sent a letter opposing the bill to the chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. The letter pointed out that even by farmers' own admission, some of them used more water than they had a right to use. Allowing them to extend their use to other fields because they are irrigating more efficiently would be "at the expense of citizens that have obeyed the law, salmon habitat, and our treaty right to harvest a sustainable surplus of salmon," the letter said.

The Legislature's inability to pass an oil-transport safety bill wasn't for lack of options. At least six bills addressed the transport by rail of Bakken crude, a name that refers to the oil-rich shale formation in North Dakota.

None of the oil-safety bills passed. Two of them required oil haulers to tell the Department of Ecology when and where shipments were passing through the state. The bills also authorized Ecology to adopt rules to further regulate oil transport.

"There were two rather extreme bills written by the ecology movement," said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, chairman of the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee. Neither bill got past Ericksen's committee.

Bills supported by Ericksen - one of which he sponsored - would have taxed incoming oil to fund spill cleanup and requested Congress to increase the safety of rail tank cars. Ericksen's bill required a study of the safety of oil transport and would have provided grants to emergency agencies for oil-spill response.

Election-year politics grounded these bills, Ericksen said.

"Many people didn't want to get to a solution," he said.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, had a different take on what happened to the oil safety bills. Ranker is on Ericksen's environment committee.

"(Ericksen) introduced a watered-down version that was heard (in the committee), and the original version was never heard," Ranker said. "I find it humorous that someone who has the gavel said someone else was responsible for not having it heard."

A solar-power incentive that pays homeowners up to $5,000 a year wasn't extended beyond its current end date of 2020, despite efforts by Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon. The debate got bogged down over a proposal to allow homeowners to lease solar systems as a way to make them more affordable. Also, Morris said utilities were concerned that customers who didn't use solar power would bear some of the cost as the utilities upgraded to handle the new solar units connecting to the grid.

In short, there was too much to hash out and too little time.

"You don't have the man-hours ... to turn complicated stuff in a 60-day session and keep it moving forward in some cases," Morris said. He will continue to work on solar leasing and extending the incentive.

Some significant bills did pass, including one extending funding for homeless-housing programs. Republican opposition in the Senate appeared to doom the bill, which would allow a $40 fee on real-estate documents to continue beyond 2015. On the last day of the session, negotiators came up with a bill both parties could agree on. The $40 fee was extended to 2019. The program must undergo a performance audit to make sure the funds are being spent properly, and private landlords must receive 45 percent of this funding source.

Ericksen and Buys, who both voted for the homelessness bill, remained skeptical of the document recording fee. They voted for it because the program will get more scrutiny, they said.

Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, returned home from Olympia having accomplished her two biggest goals, she said: "Getting out on time, and an increase in our graduation requirements." The number of credits needed to graduate from high school went from 20 to 24, which was part of Lytton's effort to strengthen math and science education in the state.

Buys said he couldn't advance a $71 million package for the Carver gym and classroom renovation in a year when there was maybe $100 million to spend on capital projects. As it turned out, the Legislature did not pass a supplemental capital budget for the first time since 1996.

To look at the construction budget optimistically, WWU could be in for some "delayed gratification," Buys said.

"That $100 million, by us deferring use on it this year, it will grow and it could be anywhere from $400 to $500 million when we get back next year," he said.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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