State’s construction budget still tied up over water dispute

By Phuong Le

The Associated Press

SEATTLE — About $4 billion in new school construction and other projects throughout the state remain on hold six months after a water-related dispute stalled passage of the state’s two-year construction budget.

Lawmakers, who will convene for a 60-day regular session on Monday, have been working on a compromise. But top Republican and Democratic leaders still appeared to be divided on the issue.

Republicans have insisted on getting legislation to fix the so-called Hirst court decision before passing the capital budget. That 2016 state Supreme Court ruling effectively restricted new household wells in rural areas if they affect water kept in streams for fish or other senior water rights.

Democratic leaders said Thursday that the capital budget is a priority and shouldn’t be linked to complex water issues.

“Clearly we’re going to move forward on the capital budget,” House Speaker Frank Chopp, a Seattle Democrat, told reporters at AP’s legislative preview Thursday. He added that “it was not the right thing to do to link the capital budget to a separate issue.”

Chopp said Democrats have been working for months on a good faith compromise and hoped his Republican colleagues will consider it.

But Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler said that “the Hirst fix is as critical to our state’s economy and housing as anything we can do.”

“Certainly we want a capital budget as much as anybody,” said Schoesler, a Ritzville Republican. But he and others say there are huge economic consequences — including plummeting land values and lost jobs — if rural communities aren’t allowed to tap small household wells to build homes.

A new Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, a Sequim Democrat who represents Legislative District 24 — which covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County — would raise $200 million in bonds for projects that can offset potential impacts to rivers and streams associated with the domestic wells.

Property owners would be allowed to drill new wells while counties have five years to come up with a more permanent watershed plan.

Senate Bill 6091 is being heard in the agriculture, water, natural resources and parks committee Monday afternoon.

Democrats hold a slim 52-48 majority in the House and a 25-24 majority in the Senate. They’ll need bipartisan support to pass the capital budget since the bond bill needed to pay for construction projects requires a 60 percent majority vote.

Without a capital budget, new money for local water and sewer projects, school construction, mental health facilities and other construction across the state remains in limbo. And 52 state workers have been laid off and 11 vacant positions remain unfilled, according to the most recent figures from the state office of financial management.

“You can’t go anywhere in the state of Washington and not recognize we need a capital budget pronto,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday.

Many landowners have pleaded with lawmakers for help after some counties such as Whatcom temporarily halted new rural development in response to the court decision. Property owners told lawmakers they spent thousands of dollars to prepare lots to build homes or to dig wells and now can’t get a building permit.

Supporters of the court ruling say counties should ensure that water is available before zoning for new rural development and that wells do not take away water from those who hold senior water rights, including water kept in stream for fish.

Democrats and Republicans have offered different solutions.

The Senate, which was controlled by Republicans last year, passed a bill last year to overturn key elements of the Hirst decision, but the House didn’t act on it.

Other bills proposed allowing property owners affected by the Hirst ruling to obtain building permits for 24 months while creating a legislative task force to work on long-term solutions.

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