Habitat-funding formula is sacred among supporters

Like a dark cloud, a fear of politics hangs over a program that allocates state money for projects that protect fish and wildlife habitat, build parks and trails and preserve farmland. Check out my story in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun, which relates methods of funding to a Bainbridge Island trails project.

A bit of history is needed to understand the controversy. In 1989, two prominent politicians, Republican Dan Evans and Democrat Mike Lowry, joined forces to create the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. The idea was to attract both government and private money to the best projects of their kind in the state.

The following year, the Legislature created a funding structure called the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program. The strength of the program, according to many supporters, is the enduring formula for allocating state dollars, first by category (PDF 12 kb), then by project through detailed evaluation criteria.

Because of the established criteria, the Legislature has avoided fights over whether to fund particular projects. Instead, the Legislature sets the statewide budget for the program, and expert committees score the projects based on established criteria.

On the 20th anniversary of the program in 2009, an editorial in the Seattle Times noted that some people doubted that the political marriage of this “odd couple” — Evans and Lowry — would last for the long run, but so far it has:

“Part of the success can be attributed to the division of labor. The coalition advocates for outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat, encourages and assists applicants with grant applications, and lobbies the Legislature for funds. A state agency reviews and ranks the applications….

“Republican Evans and Democrat Lowry are the practical and symbolic representation of the broad, bipartisan reach of this distinguished effort to preserve the best of Washington. Democrats and Republicans have crossed the aisle since 1989 to approve $620 million in state funds, which have attracted another $450 million in local and philanthropic funds, the coalition reports.”

Against this historical backdrop, it’s not a surprise that we’re seeing an outcry from the coalition, first when Gov. Chris Gregoire and then when the Senate offered budgets that deviate from the formula.

The governor’s proposed budget would have directed all the available money to Puget Sound projects. The plan was basically ignored by the Legislature. But the Senate approved a capital budget that would set aside $16 million based on a last-minute formula designed to maximize the creation of jobs. (The House supported $50 million and the Senate $20 million under the traditional formula.)

The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition released a list of projects (PDF 152 kb) comparing the House and Senate spending proposals. Be sure to note the asterisks.

State Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, makes a well-reasoned argument in favor of the jobs formula. Check out his April 15 newsletter to constituents. In this economic climate, he says, we need to put people to work.

Meanwhile, those involved in the coalition fiercely defend the existing formula, at least until it is altered through the normal process, as I describe in my story. They worry that any intrusion of politics will beget more intrusion, leading to an ongoing erosion of support for a program that has done well over the past 22 years.

How the budget will come out in the end is anybody’s guess at this point.

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