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Washington lawmaker floats $150G litter fine on paper that criticized him

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The editor of The Columbian Lou Brancaccio, left, and state Sen. Don Benton. (the columbian)

A Washington state newspaper is crying foul after a state senator proposed making the paper pay a $150,000-a-year fine for being “one of the top polluters in the county.” It just so happens that the lawmaker, state Sen. Don Benton, had been the subject of a series of critical articles in the same newspaper. 

The editor of The Columbian is now accusing Benton of playing hardball. Editor Lou Brancaccio told FoxNews.com it is clear Benton’s “nonsensical” proposal is “silly on its face and in our view, retaliatory." 

Benton, a Republican, has been the subject of multiple articles in The Columbian, after he was appointed to a six-figure position as Clark County’s director of environmental services last May. Many of Washington state’s lawmakers also hold day jobs.

The Columbian questioned Benton’s appointment from the start. The paper claimed Benton did not seem to have “the minimum requirements” for the job and noted his appointment was controversial, with one county commissioner accusing his colleagues of “political cronyism” for choosing Benton. Additionally, the paper has reported the job’s description was altered before Benton was appointed, which the county commissioners have since denied.

One of Benton’s tasks in his new role was figuring out how to generate revenue to pay for a $3.6 million settlement the county agreed to pay for violating the Clean Water Act. Last week, Benton presented the Clark County Board of Commissioners a series of what he called “options” for generating revenue, including the hefty fine on The Columbian.

Benton told FoxNews.com the newspaper fine is one of the four best options his team came up with after a “brainstorming” session. Other options offered to the board were raising fines on private roads and fining developers of stormwater systems, among others.

Benton proposed the newspaper fine as 1.5 cents per paper distributed, and said it would only apply to newspapers that have a weekly circulation of over 50,000 because they have the greatest environmental impact. The Columbian is the only paper that fits those criteria in the county, and based on its current circulation its annual fine would be about $150,000.

Benton told FoxNews.com there are many reasons behind the proposed newspaper fine, none of which are related to the Columbian’s reporting. For one, he said, newspapers are easy to keep track of and regulate, as papers keep record of their circulation. Also, Benton said, statistics show newspapers are considered one of the top five polluters nation-wide and his workers have personally noticed the high volume of newspaper materials polluting their storm drains.

"I wouldn’t be doing my job if I let one of the biggest polluters in the county off the hook,” he said.

Benton emphasized the newspaper fine is just one of many options presented to the board, and all parts of the proposal, including the fine amount, could change. He called the suggestion the proposal was an attempt to retaliate against the paper “absolutely ludicrous.”

"Typical Columbian (is) trying to make a sensational story out of something that is pretty routine, quite frankly,” he said.

The Columbian isn’t buying it. Brancaccio said he thinks Benton will back off from the proposal quickly as his paper and others draw attention to it, and it will never be implemented.

“When you do stupid stuff we are going to hold you accountable,” he said.

In a March 22 opinion column, Brancaccio blasted Benton and the commissioners who appointed him as corrupt. 

"It's politics at its worst," he wrote. "And because these guys also are terrible at masking their payback, they're not even good at being bad politicians. They feel so invincible, they simply act in the open and tell the public 'Screw you; what are you going to do about it?'" 

Kevin Goldberg, legal counsel to the American Society of News Editors, also told FoxNews.com he doubts the proposal, if implemented, would hold up in court. He said the county would need to show a lot of proof for why the proposal was necessary, especially since it seems to target just one newspaper.

“This would raise serious First Amendment questions,” he said.