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February 10, 2010 at 6:06 PM

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Chopp likes polluter tax; refineries lobby Gregoire

Posted by Jim Brunner

OLYMPIA -- State House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, is blessing a proposal to triple the state's tax on oil, pesticides and other chemicals.

House Bill 3181 would triple the "hazardous substances" tax, raising up to $250 million a year. In the long run, the bill would devote that money to cleaning up polluted stormwater cited as the leading threat to the health of Puget Sound and other waterways.

But in the short term, the proposal would allow legislators to divert much of the money to the state general fund, which faces a $2.7 billion shortfall this year.

At his regular briefing with statehouse reporters Wednesday, Chopp endorsed the proposal. "We really need to move forward to make sure our water is clean and that we not only do that for Puget Sound, but for clean water projects around the state," he said.

Of course, legislators have showed a questionable commitment to toxic cleanup projects in recent years. They diverted $180 million from the hazardous substances tax account to the general fund last year and Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed taking an additional $80 million in the 2010 budget.

The hazardous substances tax was created by a 1988 voter initiative. The money was supposed to be dedicated to cleaning up toxic waste sites. Known as the Model Toxics Control Act, the law is akin to the federal Superfund program.

Chopp acknowledged the Legislature's recent diversion of clean-water money looks bad when lawmakers are proposing to triple the tax, ostensibly to pay for more clean water projects.

But, he added: "We have the worst shortfall in state funding, the worst economic decline since the Great Depression. So while your doing that you look for money where you can, under the couch, in certain accounts."

He said lawmakers will work on language to further ensure the money eventually gets locked in to paying for stormwater cleanup projects.

Meanwhile, opponents of the plan are gearing up for a fight. They're led by the oil companies who own the state's five refineries. Those companies helped defeat a similar plan last year to impose a "barrel fee" on oil.

While the hazardous substances tax applies to more than 8,000 chemicals, the oil refineries pay the vast majority of the tax, which brought in $130 million last year. If the tax were tripled, critics argue, consumers will be hit with higher gas prices.

Some communities where refineries are big employers also may be leery of the plan. The Whatcom County Council this week approved a resolution opposing HB 3181, and its companion Senate Bill 6851.

Several representatives of the refineries met with Gov. Chris Gregoire Wednesday afternoon to make their case against the tax.

The 45-minute meeting was an "informational session" according to Gregoire spokeswoman Karina Shagren.

Gregoire said at a news conference last week that she likes the stormwater tax idea, but stopped short of saying she'll support the bill now before the Legislature.

The oil company officials and lobbyists who met with Gregoire included top managers of the Tesoro and Shell refineries in Anacortes and the US Oil refinery in Tacoma. One BP America lobbyist normally based in Chicago also attended the meeting, according to a list provided by the governor's office.

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.