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Puget Sound a big winner in Olympia

Bainbridge did okay too, as lawmakers look back on the just-finished session.

Legislators representing Bainbridge returned from Olympia with a slate of new laws aimed at making island waters cleaner, better protected, and possibly cheaper to travel.

“There were considerable environmental gains (that will) chart the course of recovery in Puget Sound for years to come,” said Sen. Phil Rockefeller, a Bainbridge Democrat, after the close of the 2007 legislative session Sunday night.

Rockefeller and his 23rd district colleagues in the state House, Reps. Sherry Appleton and Christine Rolfes, had a productive four-month session, crafting numerous laws that were either signed by the governor or are scheduled for final approval by the month’s end.

Topping each of their personal achievement lists are measures aimed at protecting the waters under and around Bainbridge.

Rockefeller passed legislation making the Puget Sound Partnership a permanent fixture in the state’s ongoing efforts to clean-up the sound. Convened in 2005 by Gov. Chris Gregoire, the partnership helped craft numerous goals and priorities that received $226 million worth of funding during the session.

“The partnership will work to merge efforts that are of great benefit to habitat, endangered species, water quality and it will attack the problem of toxic buildup,” said Rockefeller, who was, along with Appleton, a partnership member. “Many good things are already happening. We want to encourage those efforts and fit them into a larger picture.”

The partnership will absorb the state’s Puget Sound Action team and expand its staff beyond 40 people.

The new agency’s first task is to inventory various conservation and clean-up efforts underway in the 13 counties bordering the sound or with rivers running into it. The partnership will then set priorities, establish financial plans and coordinate clean-up and policy actions. While the partnership has no regulatory authority, its direct connection to the governor and Legislature give it substantial weight in its dealings with local jurisdictions.

One of the partnership’s biggest jobs is to clarify costs associated with clean-up and implementing new policies. Already, the partnership has put an $8 billion price tag on resuscitating the sound by 2020.

A special ceremony at which Gregoire will sign the partnership into law is set for May 7.

In other efforts to protect marine waters, Rockefeller put an additional $3.5 million into the state’s derelict vessel removal program and established tougher penalties for oil spills. Both of these measures await Gregoire’s signature.

Freshman legislator Christine Rolfes also tallied up a fair share of bills to help the sound.

The Bainbridge Democrat passed a bill, which is now on Gregoire’s desk, that broadens the reach of citizen-based “marine resource committees” to all counties along the sound.

New MRCs will detail specific marine ecosystem protections and help direct local involvement in clean-up efforts. MRCs already established in the north sound have led projects to study fish populations and improve shellfish habitat.

Rolfes sponsored another bill that establishes an account to help finance marine scientific research deemed necessary by the newly-created partnership.

Gregoire is expected to sign both measures before the end of the month, legislative staff said.

If it was good a session for the sound’s fish, it was also a boon for cross-sound commuters.

Rolfes’ most significant piece of legislation was her comprehensive ferry system bill, which requires Washington State Ferries to undergo a financial assessment, seek ways to boost efficiency, reduce costs and improve planning. The bill also freezes ticket prices for over two years after the May 1 rate hike goes into affect.

The bill passed the House and Senate Friday. Rolfes expects full approval from the governor this week.

“I expect that (Gregoire) will sign it,” Rolfes said. “She was part of the discussions, and there aren’t any red flags.”

While Rockefeller and Rolfes made strides in protecting, cleaning up and traveling the sound, Appleton found success in her effort to protect the island’s underground water supply from over-use. Custom tailored for Bainbridge and signed into law Saturday, the measure allows island cities to curb population growth in areas designated as aquifer conservation zones.

“I think this is a really great bill for Bainbridge,” said Appleton, a Poulsbo Democrat. “Its going to take into account water resource supply when (Bainbridge) looks at adding density.”

While the new law does not allow Bainbridge to prevent people from moving to the island, it can shift growth away from areas where groundwater is in limited supply.

Appleton also proved a strong ally in her district colleagues’ efforts to clean up the sound and lessen the financial strains placed on ferry commuters. Her own ferry bill, which would have shifted $35 million in state gas tax dollars to offset fare costs, met strong opposition in the Legislature.

Appleton also passed other bills aimed at improving the certification of elections, helping ferry workers bargain collectively with WSF and grant state employees leaves of absence to assist victims of natural disasters.

These measures were either signed into law or are scheduled for the governor’s signature.

Rockefeller’s extended list of passed bills includes the establishment of a new state scholarship to help low income students attend college and a school safety provision that was rushed through the legislature after the shootings this month at a Virginia university. Both bills await the governor’s signature.

Rolfes’ other successful measures include a $71 million state public works plan to fund bridge, road, sewer, stormwater and recycling improvement projects.

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