OLYMPIA — Senate Democrats passed a bill Tuesday to create an environmental justice council, an unelected panel that will assess the decisions of seven state agencies, including the Department of Agriculture.
Senate Bill 5141 passed 28-21 on a party-line vote in the Democratic-controlled chamber. Shortly before the final vote, the Senate curtailed the council's power by approving an amendment to make the panel "purely advisory."
Republicans warned the council would still be too potent, likely building government and tearing down the private sector. "This is an excellent bureaucrat-development project," said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
The bill requires the departments of agriculture, commerce, ecology, health, natural resources and transportation, and the Puget Sound Partnership to adopt environmental justice plans. A fiscal report projects the bill will create about 21 new full-time state jobs and cost about $6 million over two years.
Republicans said the council could be more costly in lost jobs, particularly in areas that already have high poverty rates. "You're creating more overburdened communities," said Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy.
The bill emerges from the Senate and goes to the House weaker than introduced by Sen. Rebecca Saldana, D-Seattle. The bill initially handed the 12-member council control over the seven agencies.
The proposed governing scheme was unprecedented, a Farm Bureau lobbyist said, and a Republican senator called it the worst bill he had seen in his more than two decades in the Legislature.
As the bill moved through committees, some Democrats whittled away at the council's authority. Saldana opposed relegating the council to an advisory role, but the amendment, sponsored by Republicans, passed on a voice vote with no reported tally.
"This piece of legislation has changed radically in many ways since it was first introduced," Saldana said. "Hopefully, this will be a bill that becomes a cornerstone of how we build back better."
The council's members would be appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee and be "committed to the principles of environmental justice." Environmental justice includes "fair treatment" and "eliminating harm," according to the bill.
Republicans said the council's purpose was vague, as was its relationship to agencies and lawmakers. The state already has many laws and rules meant to project the environment, GOP senators said.
Democrats rejected several Republican amendments related to making lost jobs an environmental injustice.
"There is a real potential here to do harm to the very folks that this bill is seeking to help," said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia.
The bill states that it's intended to carry out the recommendations of an environmental justice task force that said "racism is ingrained in our history and deeply embedded in our institutions today."