Inslee criticizes legislature over culvert funding

OLYMPIA -- After criticizing the state legislature for failing to fund court-mandated salmon habitat restoration, Gov. Jay Inslee took matters into his own hands.

Back in 2001, 21 tribes, together with the federal government, sued Washington state over about 1,000 culverts that are too small and too damaged to let salmon reach spawning grounds.

The lawsuit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The tribes and federal government won and the state is on the hook for what Washington State Department of Transportation estimates to be $3.7 billion in repairs, with the most critical projects to be completed by 2030.

However, for the 2019-2021 biennium, legislators only allocated $100 million toward the problem, which is even less than the previous budget.

"The legislature's inability to address the billions of dollars needed to fund necessary culvert repairs around the state is unacceptable," Inslee said upon signing the state's transportation budget Tuesday.

Inslee overruled the legislature's allocation and used his own authority to direct the department of transportation to spend $275 million. It's unclear where the money will be pulled from to achieve it.

"But this is just a one-time down payment on the multi-billion dollar tab legislators left unpaid," Inslee said. "Let me be crystal clear: This does not solve the problem. This does not get us off the hook. We need to get this fixed next year."

He has also proposed spending $700 million per biennium starting in 2021, which is far more in line with the progress needed to achieve the court's order to repair culverts.

With the legislature continuing to shirk its duty, tribes are closely tracking the progress.

"We've spent far too much time and energy and resources in trying to deny the issue," Steve Hinton said of the state. Hinton is the habitat restoration director for the Skagit River System Cooperative, which provides natural resource management services for the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

"Now that the issue is fully in front of us and we've come to grips with the reality, I think we need to get down to business, roll up our sleeves and make it happen," Hinton said.

He said the governor's increase is a welcome addition in funds for a monumental problem facing the state.