Tri-City Herald: Keep politics out of state wildlife grant allocations

The state Senate is attempting to change the way wildlife and recreation grants are ranked and funded, and if it succeeds it will set a terrible precedent.

For 25 years, the grant program has managed to keep politics out of its allocation system, but the recently released Senate capital budget cherry-picks certain projects over others that were deemed more worthy of funding by the nonpartisan group that ranked the proposals.

That means the traditional, unbiased approach to distributing state wildlife and recreation grants is being dismissed so that politicians can support their pet projects.

This is not acceptable.

The state Wildlife and Recreation Coalition is a nonprofit citizens group that includes 280 members representing interests such as conservation, recreation, business, hunting, fishing and farming. It relies on a panel of experts to rank grant applications, and then it helps analyze the funding needed to meet those requests.

Its grant program is a primary tool for conservation projects around the state, as well as trail and park development and farmland preservation.

Members involved in the process make their decisions based on several criteria and pride themselves on their balanced evaluation system. This ensures that projects receive funding based on their worth, not on the political whims of politicians.

The governor and the House must appreciate the integrity of the coalition’s approach, because those budgets do not attempt to dismantle the ranking system.

But the Senate budget rips it apart.

It shifts projects around and has removed entire categories. This jumping around has caused confusion and has resulted in high-ranking proposals being passed over so that low-ranking projects could get support.

The entire Critical Habitat category, for example, was focused on Eastern Washington and would have provided about

$15 million in funding for various projects, but this classification was cut from the Senate’s version.

In the Tri-Cities, it appears many projects may have emerged unscathed by these Senate shenanigans, but we should be concerned about what could happen to future projects if the Senate is allowed to set its own agenda.

Requests in Benton County still under consideration include the Candy Mountain acquisition, playground equipment at Crow Butte Park, improvements to the restrooms at Prosser City Park and support for Hansen Park, John Dam Plaza and Hanford Legacy Park Multi-Purpose Sports Fields. While it is a relief to know many of our local projects may still receive funding this year, the way the Senate is handling these requests is still cause for concern.

Once favoritism starts to play a role in grant allocations, projects such as these will be subject to political posturing instead of their merits, which is a bad policy.

Senate members have tried to inject their own priorities into the grant allocation process in prior years and have been unsuccessful. This latest attempt needs to fail as well.