Boating played a major role in the 2019 legislative session. From the start, new gains by the Democrats and the end of Speaker Frank Chopp’s (D-Seattle) tenure brought extra attention to this year’s legislature. Let’s not forget the sweet hum of the economy and the added urgency of saving the whales. Until the last possible moment (and even before the official start), all hands were on deck.
Let’s follow our wake as to see what all happened this year. From the “heck, yes” file, Core Plus (you may remember that this is the two-year program that trains young people in a variety of hands-on soft and hard skills) received a whopping $2.1 million in the operating budget. This achievement would not have happened without the leadership of Rep. Gael Tarleton, who is no stranger to this column. If there’s one boating and maritime champion, it is she. Even better, she is in the running to become the next Speaker, which will be announced on July 1, 2019.
Funding to remove derelict vessels came through in 2019. For over ten years, boaters have raised their hands with a “please, tax us” request to the legislature. Lawmakers have responded by adding $3 per registration.
Unfortunately, the need is great, and lawmakers granted $2.5 million for derelict-vessel removal. While noteworthy (this program is not usually part of the final operating budget), it is less than the $5 million that was included in the state Senate draft budget, but much greater than the $1 million in the House budget.
Take note boaters, there is a new law on the books to protect the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Senate Bill XX was signed into law on May 8, 2019. This new law provides a bubble around whales of 300 yards on the sides and 400 yards in front and back of the orcas. Plus, boaters are restricted to 7 knots when whales are present.
Now would be a good time to put on your business hat. It was a tough year for business interests with new tax increases and tightening of tax exemptions that boat owners and business owners rely on. First, the out-of-state tax exemption is no longer automatic when a visitor flashes their ID from a state that does not have a sales tax (like Montana or Oregon). If you have traveled to a boating-border town like Ilawco and gazed across the river to Astoria, you know it doesn’t take much to find a better deal close by.
Tax increases also made it through in the waning hours of session (like the real-estate excise tax and a business and occupation tax on a large segment of four-year-degreed workers). Time will tell what it will mean for consumers to have less money in their pockets to use on their discretionary passions like boating.
It is at this point that I would like to draw your attention to what the recreational fishing community (i.e., Northwest Marine Trade Association, Northwest Sportfishing Association, and the Puget Sound Anglers, along with the last-second help of the Recreational Boating Association of Washington) did.
Staring down a gaggle of well-heeled lobbyists representing tribal interests, the recreational fishing community stood with senate champions (most notably, Senators Jesse Salomon, Christine Rolfes, Kevin Van De Wege, and Ann Rivers) to ward off the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife’s fee increase and renewal of the Columbia River endorsement.
At this point, you might be asking yourself, “Wait, why would boaters want to not fund a department that does so much important work like funding salmon hatcheries and cracking down on illegal fishing?” It’s a fair question, but given the continual eroding away of recreational fishing opportunity each year coupled with the continual request for boaters to pay more, boaters and marine-trades associations finally
said, “Enough is enough.” Especially in the last couple of years, the recreational fishing days on the water have fallen by 70 percent. That’s 7-0.
Meanwhile, there has not been a commensurate reduction in tribal and commercial activity (you may remember that commercial gillnets even came back this year). Also, bear in mind that that recreational anglers are the largest contributor to WDFW’s budget (about 38 percent).
By standing with key legislators, taking on common sense, and embracing science, boaters stood tall, but what a roller coaster it was. Every ten minutes, my phone would blow up to the point where I just told my family at 2100 hours on the final Saturday of session, “I’m going to kiss you good night and head down to Olympia to support our efforts.”
NMTA’s lobbyist Carl Burke, who’s been working the legislative halls for decades, said he has never seen a session where boating and fishing interests prevailed like this year. The fee increase died at 2340 hours, and the gavel came down at 2351 hours. Whew, close one!