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Oil Lobby Descends On Olympia to Oppose Gas Tax

by Sara Kiesler on Mon, Feb 8, 2010

Big Oil dug its hands into Seattle last year, helping defeat the disposable bag fee with an unprecedented dump of cash—and they’re putting similar pressure on the state capitol right now.

In Olympia, two bills (one in the house and senate) introduced last Friday would raise the tax on oil imported into the state. The update is called the Clean Water Act of 2010, but the original 0.7 percent tax on hazardous materials was passed by voter initiative in 1987 as part of Initiative 97.

If passed, this new measure would triple the current tax—from 0.7 percent to 2 percent—to generate about $225 million a year. The money would be used to clean up toxic runoff that dumps into the Puget Sound poisons marine life, and close budget gaps.

But the oil lobby is out to kill the measure. According to environmental advocates following the legislative session, 41 paid lobbyists are bustling around Olympia in suits and skirts pounding on the doors of legislators to fight against the bill. Forty-one of them. That’s nearly enough for one for each of Washington’s 49 districts. Remind you of a certain $1.4 million plastic-industry-funded campaign for plastic bag love?

As in the Seattle campaign, the oil lobby is hiding behind slick rhetoric that appears to represent the working class and the struggling consumers. But a closer look shows the real backers are—not the little guys—the petroleum and asphalt industry. It's unclear how much they've spent so far, but it can't be cheap considering the profits they say they will lose in a recent Olympian story. They say it would make gas—already expensive in Washington—even more pricey, and cost jobs in oil refineries.

Despite the clear power of the oil industry, which, again, swung the bag-tax vote by buying the election, the environmental lobby still has a chance. The need for state revenue and the huge money stream this tax would bring in, combined with the backing of labor, cities who need the stormwater funding, and environmental groups far and wide should help Democratic sponsors Rep. Timm Ormsby of Spokane and Seattle's Sen. Ed Murray.

The funding for this is supposed to go to stormwater cleanup for local governments, and other environmental efforts, but legislators get a hefty piece of the pie to start with, said Bruce Wishart, lobbyist for People for Puget Sound.

"Distribution of funds is complicated," Wishart wrote in an e-mail. "Initially, about 70 percent goes to state General Fund to address the state deficit crisis"--such as schools and health care--"The remainder goes to local government for stormwater programs and the state for cleanup of Puget Sound and other clean water programs." He continues, "Over several years, the percentage to the General Fund tapers off to nothing and the clean water accounts (particularly local stormwater accounts) get all the funding."