Home On Watch Priorities + Consensus = Legislation

Priorities + Consensus = Legislation

by Peter Schrappen

Very few days go by without me being asked, “What’s the latest with copper bottom paint?” This query has followed my career at Northwest Marine Trade Association since the 2011 legislative action to phase out copper paint by 2020. Since Jan. 1, 2020, has come and gone (Happy New Year!), this month’s “On Watch’s” column writes itself with an update on this incredibly important topic.

First, how did we get here? Stepping into the Way Back Machine that I received for Christmas, the year was 2011 when Northwest Marine Trade Association championed a bill to eliminate copper paint by 2020. While on the one hand, much has happened since then; on the other hand, very little has occurred on that front.

Here is what I mean. The successful legislative action made Washington the first state in the country to legislatively vote to eliminate this chemical by 2020. Boaters and paint companies were getting acclimated to this big change. Alternatives came on the market and to quote my friend Tony Bulpin, “These new paints work but work differently.”

Like I said, much happened. As the all-out ban deadline approached, Washington’s Department of Ecology discovered how harmful the alternative chemicals were for salmon and Puget Sound.

That finding changed everything. With the support of the state’s $7 billion boating industry, they succeeded in getting a bill passed in 2017 that pushed the ban out to 2021. Yikes, that’s like next year.

Evolving Legislation

Meanwhile, their scientists and data experts went about collecting information. What they found was not that the leach rate approach (like California adopted and supported by NMTA) was the preferred path, but rather the bill for the 2020 session would move the phase-out to 2025. Hard stop. If and when this bill passes, boaters will once again be able to put as much copper on their boat’s bottom as they want just like in the old days. Like I said, not much has changed.

What you just read was the nuts and bolts, no politics, just-the-facts outline of the last nine years. Welcome to my world. What lies ahead is hard to say. As with any bill, it’s always good to remind yourself just how important two key words are to legislative success: priorities and consensus.

Think about a graph. Put “Definite Priority” on the far right of the x-axis and “Not Important” on the left side of the x-axis. Now, place “Consensus Reached” on the top of the y-axis and “No Consensus” on the bottom part of the y-axis. Okay, put down your graphing calculator. Now, remind yourself that when bills pass in a short amount of time (or long amount of time for that matter), look for that sweet spot where priorities and consensus line up.

While it’s hard to see what final bill will look like at this point, it’s safe to say that this bill (to move the phase-out from the immediate 2021) has the makings of a priority and a consensus that the 2021 is unacceptable. The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Mike Chapman, Democrat-Port Townsend, has made this a priority. All good on that front.

There’s much more to getting a bill passed than meets the eye. For one, keep in mind the importance of the committee structure to filter through the thousands of bills introduced each session. If the committee chair in both chambers is not on board, you can “forget about it.” Plus, leadership in both chambers must care enough to get the bill heard on the floor calendar. And I haven’t even brought the up the esoteric Rules Committee.

So what actually is going on?

Right now, you might be saying, “It’s no wonder nothin’ ever gets done down there.” To that, I would say, “Yes, you’re right and be glad.” All too often, the various obstacles prevent problem bills from becoming onerous laws. Lawmakers have to prioritize their goals to keep the bills moving. A successful bill gathers no dust. The party not in power (in Washington, it’s the Republicans) can send signals and gather power by slowing down legislation.

This “drawing out the clock” occurs when bills are heard on the Senate or House floor with all the lawmakers present. Using as much time as allowed, legislator after legislator will stand up and fill the air, preventing other bills from being heard. If a bill is not heard, then it cannot be passed.

So, there you have it. A primer on the legislative process. I promise to keep you up to speed as to how this applies to the copper paint bill. I’m pleased that we have met the first criteria to getting a bill passed (stakeholder agreement, for the most part, leading to a tenuous consensus) and a priority for the boating industry and several key lawmakers. Let’s see what happens!

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