A quick state Legislative session brought fast results that will impact local issues including the environment, health and recreation.
“It was a good year,” said San Juan County Councilman Rick Hughes. “A lot of stuff went through. We hoped for a few more, but we’ll keep at it.”
The end of the Legislative session brought the passage of several bills that aim to protect the Salish Sea, as well as Southern resident killer whales, which are the locally endangered orcas that call that body of water home.
Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill into law that will fund oil spills prevention and increase oil transportation safety. Revenue will be made by applying the same tax on crude oil transported by vessels in barrels to oil transported through pipelines.
Inslee signed another bill into law that will prohibit commercial net pens used for farming invasive Atlantic salmon in the state. The law will terminate existing net pen leases by 2025 and follows the collapse of the Cooke Aquaculture net pen off the shore of Cypress Island, near the San Juans, last August. The approximate 300,000 Atlantic salmon, which were released, could potentially pass on diseases to native salmon.
Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, introduced those bills, in what he called a “Salish Sea Protection package,” but one bill in the package to protect Southern resident killer whales did not pass. The bill aimed to protect orcas from vessel noise, which infringes on their ability to find food through echolocation.
However, in March, Inslee signed an executive order to protect Southern resident killer whales, as well as their endangered food source, Chinook salmon. The order includes the creation of a task force to make protection recommendations at state, regional and federal levels. San Juan County Councilman Jamie Stephens said the task force has not been assembled, but he is hopeful that a county representative will have a seat at the table.
Stephens also noted that the federal Congress recently appropriated $38 million for environmental cleanup and restoration in Puget Sound, which, originally, wasn’t earmarked for any funds.
According to Kendra Smith, the county environmental resources manager, the Washington Department of Ecology staff said they plan to supply $725,800 in grants and $69,000 in a loan for two stormwater projects on Orcas Island and two on Lopez.
Byron Rot, with the county’s salmon recovery projects department, said $635,000 was awarded from the state to sponsors of the department’s projects, which include the San Juan Preservation Trust, Friends of the San Juans and Kwiaht.
“Funding is the first step. It just gives us the money to do the work,” said Rot. “It takes a village.”
On March 1, Inslee vetoed a bill to exempt state lawmakers from the Washington State Public Records Act, hours after Stephens explained why the governor should do so. Stephens made the request during a Q&A after Inslee spoke to the Washington State Association of Counties Legislative Steering Committee, of which Stephens is a member.
If the governor had signed the bill into law, the new legislation would have been enacted immediately and made lawmakers exempt from disclosing records retroactively. This would have shielded them from disclosing information on sexual assault incidents in the Legislature that a group of news organizations had sought and sued for last year.
“By vetoing the bill, it was an opportunity for him to lead in the transparency of our state government,” said Stephens.
A regional health organization, which provides services to the county, received $4 million to finance a tri-county triage and sub-acute detox facility in Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island. San Juan County will be given priority for one of the facility’s eight beds. The facility will also serve Island and West Skagit Counties.
Hughes noted that the county received about $6 million from the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office for four projects. According to Hughes, $4 million will go to Washington State Parks to purchase new land in and around Moran State Park on Orcas Island.
“We received a lot of money [from the RCO office] for a small county, which is really good news,” said Hughes.
Mount Grant and Zylstra Lake also received about $1 million, each.
Lawmakers passed a one-time, statewide property tax cut that supports education across Washington. The rate was reduced by about 50 cents for San Juan County property owners on their taxes to be filed in 2019. It returns to the initial rate for taxes to be filed in 2020 and 2021. Currently, that bill is on Inslee’s desk to sign. The property tax was raised to satisfy a state Supreme Court case called the McCleary Decision, which ruled that the state was not providing enough funds for public schools, as written in its constitution.
To review bills that passed the Washington Legislature and bills the governor signed into law, visit leg.wa.gov.