Even in good times, when fiscal pressures are light, Eastern Washingtonians have to fight an uphill battle for a fair share of state budget allocations. For 21 years, however, an admirable exception to that pattern has been the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program.
Not that the funding it provides is easy to come by, but proponents know they are competing on the strength of their project’s merits.
Now that haven of evenhandedness is in jeopardy.
In her budget proposal to the Legislature, Gov. Chris Gregoire would end the program that has distributed more than $600 million around the state, funding diverse projects that protect farmland, wildlife habitat, recreational land, parks, trails and beaches.
Let’s face it: Even when projects are evaluated according to impartial analytical rankings, the cluster of populous counties surrounding Seattle will command an ample share of the WWRP funds. But in doing away with the proven program, the governor would deny the rest of the state any chance. She proposed instead a Puget Sound Wildlife and Recreation Program – the name says it all – at a cost of $20 million.
But hark, that bugle call you hear is a legislative cavalry riding to a possible rescue. The House of Representatives last week unveiled a capital budget with $50 million for the traditional statewide program. The Senate capital budget, expected any day, will be watched anxiously for similarly reasonable thinking.
In previous capital budgets, the WWRP has received as much as $100 million, but in an economy like this a 50 percent reduction can be accepted as a tolerable necessity. The dollar amount itself doesn’t matter as much as the need to save a state program that provides a valuable service and does so with documented impartiality.
In the House-approved plan, Spokane County would receive about $2.1 million, mostly to develop recreational access to the 710-acre Antoine Peak area in the Spokane Valley. A couple of community ball fields would be funded in Cheney. An area ranch would enter a conservation plan that will keep it in agriculture rather than potential development (which costs taxpayers about three times as much in public services as open space).
These are typical expenditures under the program, and they are possible because population concentrations and political clout are not allowed to overrule rational scientific analysis.