Amid disagreements and accusations of game-playing, a two-year capital budget that would have spent more than $4 billion on projects across the state failed to get through.
OLYMPIA — The political rancor at the state Legislature went right to the bitter end Thursday night, with lawmakers adjourning their third overtime session while blame flew back and forth across the rotunda over the inability to pass a new construction budget.
Legislative leaders had said they were likely to adjourn earlier in the day after negotiations broke down earlier in the week down on a water-rights bill. That bill was tied to passage of the two-year capital budget that would have spent more than $4 billion on projects across the state.
But the day dragged on Thursday as lawmakers and the governor’s staff shuttled between chambers to continue negotiations. Once it became clear that no progress would be made, the exodus began early evening, first by House Democrats, followed by the other caucuses.
Ultimately, just a handful of lawmakers in each chamber remained to officially gavel out.
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Democratic House Majority Pat Sullivan said Democrats “worked in good faith to try and get an agreement.”
“It was clear that wasn’t going to happen today,” he said, adding that negotiators would continue working on the issue even though they were no longer in session.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler said House Democrats “left with their tails between their legs” rather than vote on the water bill.
“Anything that affects 39 counties in the state is worth working on, fighting for,” he said.
Lawmakers were in session for 193 days this year on what was scheduled to be a 105-day session, first because of a delay on approving a state operating budget to avert a partial government shutdown, then by a dispute over legislation aimed at overturning a recent state Supreme Court known as the Hirst decision. That ruling effectively limited the use of new domestic wells in certain rural areas when it harms senior water rights.
In October, the state Supreme Court ruled that Whatcom County failed to protect water resources by allowing new wells to reduce flow in streams for fish and other uses. The court said counties must ensure, independently of the state, that water is physically and legally available before they issue building permits in certain areas.
In the wake of that ruling, some counties temporarily halted certain rural development, while others changed criteria for obtaining building permits.
Frustrated property owners told lawmakers they spent thousands of dollars to prepare building lots only to discover they now can’t get a building permit. County officials say they don’t have the resources to do hydrological studies required under the ruling.
Several tribes across the state have urged Gov. Jay Inslee to oppose efforts to overturn the court decision and reject proposals that don’t protect tribal treaty rights. They say the ruling correctly requires local governments to plan ahead so new water withdrawals don’t harm those with senior water rights, including tribes, municipalities and farmers.
Lawmakers have proposed various bills in response, and negotiations were ongoing until they first stalled Wednesday.
Inslee on Wednesday supported House Democrats’ latest offer allowing property owners impacted by the Hirst ruling to obtain building permits for 24 months. It would also create a legislative task force to work on long-term solutions.
But Republicans in the House and Senate argue a permanent fix is needed now and instead wanted to pass a bill passed four times by the Senate aimed at reversing key elements of the Hirst decision. An amendment offered by Republican Rep. David Taylor and Democratic Rep. Brian Blake made several changes to that bill, including giving tribes some input regarding development.
House Republican leader Dan Kristiansen said once he told Democratic leaders that his caucus planned a procedural move to try and force a vote on the amendment if the House moved to adjourn, Democrats refused to take to the floor.
Kristiansen said the procedural move was a “last-ditch effort” because he was certain enough Democrats in the House supported the bill that it would pass if brought to floor.
“Just allow the bill to come to the floor of the House and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.
Democratic leaders said they wouldn’t allow a vote on something that hasn’t been agreed to as part of four-corner negotiations.
“We’re not going to allow games to be played out here,” Sullivan said.
Democrats argued that new money for local water and sewer projects, school construction, mental-health facilities and other construction across the state remains in limbo, and state employees who are currently being paid by existing agency funds ultimately face layoffs without a new capital budget enacted. Republicans said they also want a capital budget, but that they needed leverage to ensure the water-rights issue was addressed this year.
He said he would not call lawmakers back for another overtime session unless they have a firm plan that will lead to a vote on the capital budget.
“I hope that calmer minds may prevail in the weeks and months that come,” Inslee said.