Economic development groups in Tacoma file suit against local water initiatives; illegal attempt to limit industrial growth?

Local initiative measures continue to generate controversy. We’ve written of the Olympia income tax initiative, last year’s unsuccessful “Worker Bill of Rights” in Spokane, Tacoma’s minimum wage, and the SeaTac and Seattle minimum wage measures. Now we see an effort in Tacoma to impose a new regulatory regime on water use

The News Tribune reports that the local initiatives are being challenged in court by the Port of Tacoma, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber and the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.

The News Tribune describes the proposed measures.

If the Pierce County auditor’s office verifies that the proposals have enough signatures, the first would appear on this fall’s ballot as Initiative 6 and would mandate that all requests for water permits requiring 1 million gallons of water per day or more to get voter approval.

The second would appear on the city ballot in 2017 as Amendment 5 but would change Tacoma’s city charter in the same way. Supporters prefer the charter change because the charter cannot be changed by a vote of the City Council — unlike other city laws adopted by voter initiative.

Both initiatives grew out of an effort to stop what was proposed as the largest methanol plant in the world from locating on Tacoma’s Tideflats.

The groups challenging the measure in court explain that the proposals would send seriously jeopardize the local economy and that the proposals violate state law.

All three organizations say both issues would chill economic development in the county if they are allowed to go to a public vote, whether or not they passed.

“The fact that it’s illegal and unconstitutional is, from our perspective, almost beside the point,” said EDB CEO Bruce Kendall. “If this passes or comes close to passing, what’s next? What else are we going to have public votes on?”

The lawsuit contends that the ballot measures are flawed in many ways, among them that they go beyond the legal changes allowed by citizen initiative, attempt to override state water law and seek to strip the legal rights of corporations as established in the U.S. and state constitutions, as well as the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

Already, as noted in our foundation report, Washington already has established a high bar for environmental protection.

In terms of regulatory content, Washington regulations routinely exceed the minimums required by federal law… Policies to address climate change and water quality are frequently cited by employers as areas of uncertainty that can affect long-range planning. 

The proposals create a uniquely challenging problem for utilities.

Tacoma Public Utilities officials also are concerned. The ballot measures would force Tacoma Water to violate “a number of state statutes” which includes a requirement that the utility serve any customers within the service area without limitations, said Robert Mack, TPU’s deputy director for public affairs.

“This appears to add a separate requirement that’s not in state law about which customers we can serve and cannot serve,” Mack said.

The port’s interest is also clear.

Connie Bacon, president of the Port of Tacoma commission, said she fears if the water issues make it to the ballot, companies that might consider locating in Tacoma would think twice.

“There aren’t a lot of companies out there that are going to build a methanol plant, but there are a lot of companies out there that are going to use water,” Bacon said.

Business leaders and economic development officials have good reason to be alarmed.