Washington state residents are likely to feel the pain as lawmakers remain deadlocked on a capital construction budget and rural water-use bill.
OLYMPIA — Capital construction budgets and water-policy legislation sometimes draw yawns in the political world. They’re important, necessary and not always exciting.
Not this year.
Lawmakers in Olympia, who have pushed themselves into a record-long legislative season, remain deadlocked over a two-year capital budget and a bill to address the state Supreme Court’s Hirst ruling over rural water rights.
Senate Republicans effectively want to roll back the Hirst decision, which stopped drilling of certain domestic water wells and put the damper on some rural home construction.
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GOP lawmakers, who control the Senate, have said they won’t move a final capital budget forward without an agreement that solves the problem they say was created by Hirst.
Democrats, meanwhile, insist the two bills be considered separately, and that Republicans pass a capital budget, which has near-unanimous support on both sides of the aisle.
With the Legislature heading into the final days of a third overtime session, a handful of lawmakers are trying to find a solution to pass one or both of these consequential bills.
They’ve got a tight timeline. Lawmakers will likely need to reach a deal soon in order to call enough legislators back to Olympia to get votes by Thursday, the last day of session.
Absent an agreement, some Washingtonians will feel pain over the political fallout.
The approximately $4.2 billion proposed two-year capital budget approved by House lawmakers adds nearly $1 billion to help local school districts build or renovate schools.
It spends more than $100 million to improve Washington’s mental-health system, including about $65 million to add community beds and more than $10 million to improve Western State Hospital, Washington’s largest psychiatric facility.
It includes nearly $18 million between two state agencies to reduce wildfire hazards through forest projects, with most of the money going to the state Department of Natural Resources.
The money would come after record-setting wildfires seasons in 2014 and 2015 ravaged Eastern Washington. The projects, which among other things go toward tree thinning and prescribed burning, deal with a situation “100 years in the making,” said state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz.
That money is needed now, Franz said, because it will still be “20 years before we’re on top of it.”
In its first year, a new capital budget could support nearly 8,000 jobs, according to the state Office of Financial Management. Without it, Washington state would lose authority to use about $163 million in federal funds.
The 2016 Hirst decision effectively limits the use of new domestic wells in certain rural areas if they would harm senior water rights, including some stream flows.
The ruling has set counties scrambling to figure out how to determine whether water is legally available, and stymied people trying to build homes.
Washington’s Indian tribes have called on the Legislature not to roll back Hirst.
“A good portion of these new wells are in watersheds that are supposed to be closed to new water withdrawals to protect senior water-right holders and fish,” according to a June post by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
Many in the GOP are frustrated at what they feel is a lack of urgency among Democrats to help residents affected by the court decision.
Senate Republicans this year repeatedly passed their proposed rollback, and “the bill is in the House for the fourth time,” said Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, a negotiator on Hirst.
Democrats have had a few different proposals, but none has gotten passed off the House floor.
As lawmakers grope for a last-minute compromise, they also have to overcome months of bad blood. Democrats spent the spring fuming that Republicans wouldn’t start formal budget negotiations.
And Republicans this month have been consumed in outrage over Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s veto of a manufacturing-tax cut, which Democratic lawmakers had agreed to as part of the state budget deal. Those in the GOP have argued that Inslee’s veto showed Democrats had bargained in bad faith.
Those moves spill into negotiations over both Hirst and the capital budget.
“I hope that the Republicans do not tie the capital budget to a veto override on this manufacturing-tax credit,” said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, one of the capital budget negotiators. “There’s been some indication that some members might want to do that.”
A veto override would require a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber.
The standoff comes just after lawmakers finally approved an operating budget that boosts K-12 education funding in an effort to satisfy a state Supreme Court decision that Washington was unconstitutionally underfunding its schools.
The $937 million in school construction money in the proposed capital budget would provide matching grants to school districts that have passed levies for new buildings or modernization projects.
The capital budget was designed to complement that state operating budget in both K-12 school and mental-health projects, and “it’s time to pass this budget and get it done,” Frockt said.
House Democrats approved a capital budget nearly unanimously July 1. Earlier in the session, the Senate unanimously approved its own capital budget that Frockt said is similar to the House’s.
What’s left is for both House Democrats and Senate Republicans to agree to work out a final version.
“I don’t know what it says if we can’t pass a budget that everybody actually agrees on,” Frockt said.
But Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside and lead GOP capital budget negotiator, said the water-rights dispute must be solved first. Back in his district, people are saying “stand firm, hold your ground, don’t give in,” Honeyford said. “Hirst stopped rural home construction,” he added.
One of those potential homebuilders is Paul Stead, a 43-year-old firefighter who lives in Duvall. Stead says he’s trying to build a home on a 5-acre parcel outside town and has gotten his building permit approved.
But King County sent him a letter warning that because of the Hirst decision, he may not have a legal right to the well water, according to Stead. That situation has affected his ability to get financing for the project, he added.
“I’m clearing [the land] and I’m trying to get the foundation possibly in,” he said. “But I can’t go any further than the foundation.”