Clean-air program may suffocate

  Washington state voters recently passed a ballot initiative that slashes taxes but leaves the state's clean-air program gasping for breath. The initiative cuts license plate fees from an annual percentage based on car value to a cheap $30 and dictates that any increase in taxes for state government and schools must be voted on by the people.

Republican Sen. Pam Roach says Initiative 695 is a backlash from frustrated voters who have had no meaningful tax relief. But the initiative leaves lawmakers $750 million short.

A laundry list of state services, including the clean-air program, will fall by the wayside. "We'll have to do less of a lot of things," says Washington Department of Ecology's Larry Altose.

About $11 million in the next two years has been axed from his department's budget. Altose says this means less pollution monitoring, less public education about pollution, and less basic science. If the state fails to meet clean-air standards, he says, the federal government can withhold money slated for new freeways and mass transit systems.

"Great minds are working to figure out where additional funding might come from, but in the event that doesn't happen, the air pollution account will most certainly be out of money by Jan. 3," says Altose.

Gov. Gary Locke wants to declare an emergency, which would allow the state to use excess funds from other areas for local government and programs. Right now, panic is in the air.

"There's a lot of competing needs out there. We're looking for ways to restore the department of ecology program," says Ed Penhale of the governor's budget office. "But exactly how to do this hasn't been decided yet."

*Rebecca Clarren