Green Warriors

Key environmental groups will campaign against gas tax increase.

The environmentalists have not only left the table, they're preparing to picket the restaurant.

Three of the state's most important green transportation groups—1000 Friends of Washington, Transportation Choices Coalition, and Washington State Public Interest Research Group—held a meeting last week to begin organizing an active opposition campaign to Referendum 51 (R-51), the $7.7 billion gas tax increase that would fund transportation projects around the state. The enviros' decision to move forward with an opposition campaign really hurts R-51's chances for approval by voters this November. The greens' nay-saying may also have dire consequences for their own political future.

"We really didn't have a choice in the matter," asserts Peter Hurley of Transportation Choices Coalition. R-51 "would do a lot of harm." The greens claim 85 percent of R-51 goes to building new roads and only the remaining 15 percent is directed toward public transit and other alternatives. Therefore, they argue, R-51 is a disastrous recipe for more sprawl, more pollution, and more traffic. Other important green groups—the Sierra Club, Washington Environmental Council, Washington Conservation Voters—have not yet taken stands on R-51. Some are expected to remain neutral, while others may join the opposition.

R-51's spokesperson Lily Eng says she is "baffled by the decision by public transit advocates." Eng says there is $1.8 billion in R-51 for "bus services, commuter rail, trip reduction, and the ferry system." She adds, "This is money that the transit system needs." The speaker of the state House of Representatives, Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, says the enviros are significantly understating the amount in R-51 that goes to transportation choices. He estimates that it is 25 percent rather than 15 percent. "R-51 is a balanced package," he claims.

The greens' opposition campaign could have a serious impact. R-51 backers don't expect to get much support from the anti-tax, traffic-free voters in rural and Eastern Washington. In order to pass statewide, R-51 needs to rack up healthy margins of victories in counties around Puget Sound and win by a landslide in Seattle. That means R-51 backers have to convince liberal Democratic voters to support the package. The task becomes much harder if the enviros are giving these same voters compelling arguments to vote no.

R-51 "needs those [environmental] voters," says Christian Sinderman, a political consultant. "Could it pass without them? Maybe, but [R-51's] margin is thin enough that they can't afford to lose any meaningful voting block."

R-51 may not be the only loser in the equation—the greens may feel the wrath of the Democratic Party's leadership. Chopp and Gov. Gary Locke are pushing very hard to pass R-51 this fall. (Locke personally lobbied the board members of 1000 Friends, persuading them to leave the door open to reconsidering their opposition.) For the last five years, business moguls, labor leaders, and political opinion makers have continually warned politicians in increasingly dire terms that they must solve the state's transportation crisis. Locke called the Legislature into session three times last year to try to forge a solution. This year, Chopp worked tirelessly with Republicans and his own members in order to reach a compromise and pass R-51.

Even someone as friendly to the green cause as political consultant John Wyble, who was the political director of the Washington Conservation Voters from 1998-2000, warns that enviros could destroy their relationships with Chopp and Locke with their opposition. "This is a step backwards," Wyble says. He claims, "In 1998, when I started [lobbying the state Legislature], we were not at any tables." When Chopp assumed power, Wyble continues, "he held the [environmental] line for us. I'm not sure he will continue to do that." Wyble says Chopp will be harsh with his political payback to the greens for their opposition. "He has to do that" to wield political power effectively, Wyble argues.

1000 Friends' Aaron Ostrom and Transportation Choices' Hurley seem like unlikely candidates for political martyrdom. Both have electoral ambitions—Hurley served on the Snohomish County Council from 1990-1994 and Ostrom ran for Seattle City Council in 1997. Both worked for Seattle City Hall before becoming advocates full time. They are consummate inside political players in the liberal public interest group community.

And they both acknowledge their opposition to R-51 is politically risky. "We're not winning any dinner invitations" as a result, quips Hurley. He continues more seriously, "It's a step we didn't take lightly and would have preferred not to take. It was based on principle rather than politics."

Ostrom argues that a close relationship with Democratic leaders has not proven so beneficial to the cause. "What did a seat at the table get us so far? It didn't get us jack. Do you want these guys to be afraid of you or friendly to you? In the end, we are in the business of protecting environmental quality of life."

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