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November 17, 2010 at 8:12 PM

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To help business, Gregoire suspends new rules and regs -- but which ones?

Posted by Beth Kaiman

From Craig Welch, Seattle Times environment reporter:

In an effort to boost Washington's ailing economy, Gov. Chris Gregoire on Wednesday suspended the development of all new "non-critical" state government rules -- with, of course, a host of caveats.

Gregoire's dramatic-sounding move gave state agency heads the power, until December 2011, to put off developing new state edicts -- you know, regulations like those that govern everything from food-cleanliness in restaurants to the type of equipment that can be used in playgrounds to the qualifications necessary to work as a funeral-home embalmer.

Gregoire's staff said it hoped a one-year moratorium on new rules would help struggling small businesses get back on their feet.

But the truth is no one yet has any idea what it will mean or whom it will help or hurt. That includes the governor and her staff.

Gregoire's chief of staff, Jay Manning, explained the governor's thinking this way: If businesses already understand existing requirements and don't have to worry about a bunch of new ones, "then maybe that will give them enough comfort and predictability that they'll get off their wallets and start hiring and spending again."

Gregoire's announcement immediately earned praise from business advocates, from the Association of Washington Business to the conservative Washington Policy Center.

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, the ranking member on the House Finance Committee, was among those who urged Gregoire to take the action.

He said doing so would "save the state millions of dollars, allow employers some regulatory certainty, and show our citizens that their leaders are genuinely concerned about their personal and financial dilemmas."

Environmentalists, not surprisingly, were outraged. They complained that such a decision could stall everything from new clean-energy rules to pending updates to rules governing cleanup of toxic chemicals to new restrictions on logging on unstable slopes.

But at the moment they can't really say for sure.

"That's just one of the problems we have with this order," said Jessica Finn Coven, with Climate Solutions. "It's clear that it has provided less certainty for businesses - not more."

In fact, no one can say whether it will save businesses a dime, or whether it will have any environmental impact at all.

For starters, the governor included a list of exemptions. Rules will still be developed if they were mandated by the federal government or dictated with a particular timetable by the Legislature.

For example, pending increases to the minimum wage or creation of new shoreline-management rules by local government will still take place, because the timetables are written into law, Manning said.

The governor also will allow the creation of new government regulations deemed important for the health, safety and welfare of the public. (It's not yet clear who would define those terms -- and if new regulations aren't considered critical by someone, doesn't that raise a different kind of question?)

The governor's office intends to weigh in on issues if it deems an agency head is moving in what it considers the wrong direction.

Manning said the governor's office wasn't motivated by any one particular issue, but by complaints from small businesses that they're dealing with a cumulative effect of new rules from many agencies all at once at a time when profit margins are slim or non-existent.

"This wasn't drafted with a set of rules in our head that we were targeting," he said.

Manning also said halting new state rules would free short-staffed and oft-furloughed state workers to do a better job dealing with the rules they have now, though he couldn't point to a single rule he was certain would be suspended. Those lists, he said, would be developed by agencies in coming days and weeks.

But given the enthusiasm and frustration generated Wednesday, one thing seems certain: Agency heads and the governor's office can expect a holiday season filled with lobbying by businesses, nonprofits and individuals interests hoping to temporarily nix -- or save -- whichever regulation they care about most.

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