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Washington State Bites Off Regulatory Reform, but Critics Wonder if System Will Be Simplified

FARMER Wini Voelckers recently found herself puzzled by a regulatory notice about labeling pesticide-storage areas. The letter from a Washington State agency described the state's rule, but also a forthcoming federal rule on the same issue. The notice left her uncertain about which one to comply with.

``We raise apples,'' Ms. Voelckers says. Reading regulations ``should not also be required,'' she says. But the former chair of the state's Small Business Improvement Council says her farm and other small companies must navigate a labyrinth of rules on employment, safety and health, environment, building, transportation, and international trade.

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``We need help,'' she told a state task force last week.

The task force, formed recently by the executive order of Washington Gov. Mike Lowry (D), is a small sign that such pleas by the business community are being heard. But such efforts are not new, and whether the governor's Task Force on Regulatory Reform succeeds remains to be seen.

The stakes are high, affecting not only the climate for job creation but also government revenues, the confidence of disillusioned voters, and the effective enforcement of existing regulations. Critics say poorly implemented rules are failing to provide environmental or other benefits, while burdening employers.

In his opening remarks to the task force, Governor Lowry laid out the problem: Layers of rules, each aimed at fostering a high quality of life in the state, are together having an impact that is partly the reverse. The impact on business is threatening the basis of high living standards - good jobs. Additionally, a downturn in aerospace and timber has created a budget shortfall.

The governor is already getting an earful from businesses after approving tax hikes and health-care reforms that will add new regulations.

``Our state is perceived as having a deteriorating business climate,'' says Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Businesses. Firms considering expansion, he says, look for states where ``investment and operating costs are lower, permitting is streamlined, and regulatory compliance is reasonable.''

``We're competing with other states and other countries'' on matters as mundane as getting a timely response to an application for an air-emissions permit, says Tom Goeltz, an attorney on the task force.

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The Massachusetts legislature, for example, passed a law mandating that environmental agencies offer money-back guarantees if permit requests are not acted on within a specific time. Formerly, most permits had no application fee, but ``applicants got what they paid for'' - an average one-year wait, says Tom Higgins of Massachusetts's Department of Environmental Protection.

Now applicants pay fees to the state of Massachusetts, but get a response typically within three months. Maine has followed suit and other states are considering the idea.

The 23-member task force, which includes elected officials, regulators, business people, and labor and environmental leaders, acknowledges that its first step must be to define manageable goals.

Lowry has called on the commission to address complex issues such as how to involve affected parties in the rulemaking process, improving education on how to comply with rules, and the use of ``alternative dispute resolution'' rather than litigation for contentious issues such as siting public projects.

Given this huge mandate, ``the greatest risk is that nothing happens,'' says Rod Brown, an environmental attorney on the task force.

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