OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee, determined to put more money toward helping salmon survival, on Tuesday directed the state to boost funding for court-ordered culvert repairs by $175 million over the next two years.
The money would be spent to fix or replace highway culverts that block salmon migration, and goes beyond what the Legislature set aside for the job.
Inslee made the announcement shortly after signing Washington’s new, two-year state operating, capital-construction and transportation budgets.
After a 17-year legal battle, the U.S. Supreme Court last June ruled that Washington must make a large investment in fish culverts. The structures are intended to allow streams to flow beneath roads and railroads, but can block migrating salmon if they become clogged or are too steep to navigate.
The court decision could cost the state billions of dollars — and legislators this year provided only $100 million in the 2019-2021 transportation budget.
“The fate of our salmon is intrinsically tied to our tribes, our orca, our economy and our very identity,” Inslee wrote in a statement. “That’s why I am directing my Department of Transportation to immediately ramp up its culvert repair program and I am using budget flexibility provided by the legislature to increase culvert repair spending to $275 million in the next biennium.”
“But this is just a one-time down payment on the multi-billion dollar tab legislators left unpaid,” he added.
The move directs the transportation department to take money from projects that spent less than what they were allotted in the 2017-19 budget, and put those funds toward culverts, according to a statement by the agency. The statement added that the agency has authority from the Legislature to take such action.
Inslee on Tuesday also signed the new state operating budget. The $52.4 billion 2019-21 operating budget funds parks, prisons and schools as well as natural-resource and social-service programs, among other things.
Lawmakers passed the new operating budget during their 105-day, regularly scheduled legislative session that ended April 28. Helping fund that budget is a new tax package that tops out at more than $830 million over two years.
The budget and tax package also creates a dedicated account that devotes hundreds of millions of new dollars to increase college financial aid and boost high-demand degree programs, such as nursing, engineering and computer science.
For lawmakers opposed to some of the new taxes, Tuesday was the last day to hope that Inslee might veto some of those bills.
On Monday, 38 lawmakers released a letter calling for a veto of Senate Bill 5997, which raises revenue by converting the nonresident state sales-tax exemption into a remittance program.
Lawmakers near the borders of Oregon and Idaho said they worry the change would scare away out-of-state residents who wind up shopping and buying goods in Washington.
“Areas like Longview/Kelso have lost significant retailers in recent years — retailers such as Sears and Macy’s,” according to the letter, which was signed by a handful of Democrats. “With the change to a remittance program, we are concerned that non-resident shoppers will switch to shopping in Oregon — jeopardizing retailers’ ability to keep their doors open for Washington residents.”
Inslee vetoed neither bill.
The new budget sets aside $280.5 million for a plan to shore up and transform the state’s struggling mental-health system, with additional money provided for that in the new capital-construction budget.
It includes $45.5 million for agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources, to combat wildfires, and also pays for new collective-bargaining agreements that include raises for state workers.
With a strong state economy driving revenue into state coffers, lawmakers this year found they could depend on projections of nearly $50.6 billion for the new operating budget without hiking taxes.
But Democrats argued that more taxes were needed to fulfill the state’s obligations. Those lawmakers pointed to billions of dollars necessary to keep funding the court-order K-12 education spending plan, as well as money for mental-health programs and other priorities.