Gorge Commission budget faces axe

April 22, 2011

On a budget filled with pages of numbers, the one on line 5 of page 42 of the Washington State Senate's proposed budget for the 2012-13 fiscal years stands out:

$0.

That's how much the senate's proposed budget allocates to the Columbia River Gorge Commission in 2013.

The Washington senate budget includes a note, saying that funds for the Gorge Commission would be incorporated in the Washington Department of Ecology's budget in 2013 - while simultaneously reducing state appropriations for the Department of Ecology by nearly $3 million in 2013.

A small amount of money - approximately $120,000 - would be included in Ecology Appropriations to fund the Gorge Commission.

Oregon is required to match those funds, meaning that Commission would get a little under $240,000 for its budget in 2013, down from approximately $880,000 the past two years and from $1.2 million previously.

"We would basically be paying some bills and answering the phone," Gorge Commission Executive Director Jill Arens said. "It would just be administrative work to keep the entity going."

The commission is jointly funded by the states of Oregon and Washington, who are federally mandated to fund the organization in a way that allows to "maintain facilities, a staff of personnel and such activities as may be necessary to fulfill the powers and duties imposed upon and entrusted to the commission," according to the compact between the two states and the federal government.

The commission is tasked with managing the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act by reviewing land use ordinances, setting land use standards and reviewing major development action.

In Washington, the governor, house and senate all propose different budgets and then go through the process of reconciling them. That process is likely to lead to a special session in the Washington legislature. The regular session is slated to end this week.

Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside) represents the 15th district, which includes the majority of the Gorge Scenic area on the Washington side.

He was one of 34 senators to vote in favor of the senate's budget, and said he voted for it after weighing the overall "good and bad."

He said he would support a budget which funds the Gorge Commission at levels that the house budget lays out "but only if I can support the whole budget."

Michael Lang, conservation director of the Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, said Friends of the Gorge has been lobbying on behalf of the commission to governments in Washington and Oregon and hopes that it can have its funding restored.

"It would be a crippling cut," he said.

The Gorge Commission has already dealt with over 30 percent staff cuts, with seven full-time positions (one of which is currently unfilled) down from 10.5, and is now only open four days a week.

"It's a 72 percent reduction," Arens said of the proposed Washington funding. "No other agency has been cut that much."

The House budget ignores the possibility of moving the commission into the department of ecology and funds it for slightly more than $400,000 in each of the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire's budget initially proposed merging the Gorge Commission into the Department of Ecology effective July 2012, but raised the Department of Ecology's budget slightly at the same time.

The Department of Ecology isn't quite sure how the whole process would work.

"We don't have an answer to that," department spokeswoman Kim Schmanke said. "The senate language creates some confusion."

However, the proposed legislation to authorize that merger yet to be acted on and the Ecology budget does not include space for funding the Gorge Commission.

"There is no place in Ecology's budget for us," Arens said.

Arens said an inclusion in the Ecology budget would help stabilize the Gorge Commission's budget and give it a larger sister agency to advocate on its behalf, but does not see how the merger makes sense if that department's budget is taking deep cuts at the time of the merger.

The proposed funding for the commission is roughly the same between Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber's proposed budget for Oregon and the Washington House version of its state budget, with both proposing between $400,000 and $450,000 per year.

Lang said Friends of the Gorge anticipated that the House budget would contain most of the most of the cuts, and didn't anticipate it from the senate version. However he is hopeful their lobbying efforts will have an effect.

"I'm cautiously optimistic it can be restored to the House levels," he said." I've gathered enough information that I think they just made a mistake."

The budgets put forth by Kitzhaber and the Washington house still represents a cut in funding for the organization, but not as deeply as the Washington senate budget.

Governor Kitzhabers office said they would prefere the Gorge Commission be funded at levels laid out in his budget.

Arens does not understand why the Gorge Commission was the focus of such deep cuts. She said natural resource funding makes up roughly 2 percent in Oregon and Washington.

"We are 4 percent of the natural resource dollars," Arens said. "We are tiny."

If the commission is funded at levels recommended in the senate budget, Arens is not sure the Gorge Commission would be able to meet in 2013.

She said most of the available funds budgeted to the commission would go towards paying bills and other obligations and that it would have to give up its office, its agency field work car and be able to only pay one part-time staffer.

She also added that if the commission is not able to meet its obligations it could set up litigation by landowners, Oregon, counties or the federal government.

Lang said that even though Friends of the Gorge has disagreed with the commission in the past, he is still hopeful it can continue to function.

"We don't always support its decision but we support the agency and the concept," he said. "On the 25th anniversary of the Gorge Scenic Act it's a bad precedent to cut the budget of the Gorge Commission and we want legislators in Washington and Oregon to know that."

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