OP-ED: Camas mill closure tough lesson in need for a more business-friendly economy in Washington state

It felt like a gut punch — the kind that bends you over in shock and agony. A Georgia-Pacific (GP) representative called to tell me company officials decided to permanently shut down a major portion of the Camas paper and pulp mill, ending some 300 family-wage jobs. GP will continue tissue-manufacturing operations that support 140 local jobs, but will redirect paper operations to its Louisiana mill.

I’m thankful the entire Camas operations will not close, but devastated for this loss to our community. Operating since 1884, just five years before Washington became a state, the Camas mill has provided a steady paycheck for thousands of workers, including some in my family. With an average hourly rate of $27, GP has contributed more than $46 million annually to our local economy, as well as millions spent on local goods and services. It has also invested tens of millions of dollars to clean emissions and ensure minimal impact to our environment.

Officially GP says, “Economic impacts from the continuing decline in demand for communication papers make it necessary to discontinue operations” in Camas and transfer them to Louisiana.

Unofficially, it’s not difficult to read between the lines. Employers tell me it is increasingly impossible to do business in Washington. Many feel they are under attack. Why shouldn’t they? Consider this:

  • Beginning in January, employers will be required to provide all workers with paid sick leave and by 2020, paid family and medical leave.
  • Gov. Jay Inslee has ordered the Department of Ecology (DOE) to implement a cap-and-trade rule strictly limiting carbon production from 68 entities, including the Camas mill, with fines of up to $10,000 per day. I’m for green energy jobs, but how do we reduce carbon if we must import those goods back to Washington from the other jobs we’ve chased away from our state?
  • Inslee wants a carbon tax against employers. Now that the Legislature is under Democratic control (Senate, House and governor’s office), many believe a new carbon tax is likely, since Republicans no longer have the votes to stop it.
  • The governor vetoed a lower tax rate for manufacturers, ending hope that those resources could be used to expand and attract additional manufacturing jobs in Washington.
  • New DOE water quality standards are expected to cost paper mills and other factories millions of dollars to upgrade their technologies to ensure water returned to rivers, lakes and streams is cleaner than when they received it.
  • After years of forcing Millennium Bulk Terminals to navigate a lengthy regulatory process for construction of an export terminal in Longview, DOE denied a water quality permit based on criteria unrelated to water, killing the project. It demonstrated the bureaucratic nightmare of obtaining a permit to operate in Washington.
  • Restrictions under the Growth Management Act (GMA) have artificially reduced available land for development and excessively prolonged the permitting process, especially in the rural, economically distressed areas of Washington. My efforts to allow limited industrial development along several short-line railroads in our state (House Bill 1504) were originally met by Gov. Inslee’s veto pen. It was only after we reduced the bill to Clark and Okanogan counties did the governor finally agree to sign revised legislation (Senate Bill 5517) — and even that miniscule GMA reform was met by resistance and required intense negotiations.
  • The House majority’s refusal to pass a fix to the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision, which has blocked landowners with undeveloped properties from drilling a well, could devastate Washington’s construction industry.
  • The Democrats’ new majority in the Legislature clears the way for the possibility of a new capital gains tax, increased business and occupation taxes, and increased real estate excise taxes. They are also testing the state constitution for an income tax.

Employers may be able to handle some of these individual challenges. Collectively, it’s no wonder why GP, Alcoa and other companies have charted exit strategies from Washington into business-friendly regions where they can fairly compete.

GP’s mill closure in Camas is a gut-wrenching lesson in the realities of our state’s economy. Either we improve our business climate or it won’t be long before someone erects a sign reading, “Will the last employer leaving Washington please turn out the lights?”

# # #

Editor’s note: Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, serves the 18th Legislative District, is a small business owner, and a member of the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee.

State Representative Liz Pike, 18th Legislative District
469 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7812 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000