EYE ON OLYMPIA:

Water ruling debate holds up state capital budget

OLYMPIA — All might seem quiet now that the state Legislature has passed and Gov. Jay Inslee has signed a two-year operating budget.

While the operating budget might be in place, $4 billion in construction projects — including projects in Clallam and Jefferson counties — are waiting on the approval of the state’s capital budget.

The Democratic-controlled House approved a $4.2 billion capital budget on a bipartisan 92-1 vote July 1 and sent it to the Senate.

Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, chairs the House Capital Budget Committee, which recommended passage of the measure in the spring. Tharinger has said in the past that the capital budget, which funds construction of schools, hospitals and many other public projects, usually gets bipartisan support.

Tharinger serves the 24th District with Sen. Kevin Van De Wege and Rep. Mike Chapman. The 24th District includes all of Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.

Senate Republicans said they won’t pass the capital budget without approval of legislation to overturn a recent state Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision.

The ruling limits the use of new domestic water wells in some rural areas when it harms “senior” water rights — water rights already established.

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.

Lawmakers have proposed various bills in response, but there has been little agreement so far.

“We’re holding [the capital budget] right now,” Republican Sen. Jim Honeyford, chair of the capital budget, told the Associated Press last Thursday. He said the court decision has stopped home construction in rural areas and it’s important to get that on track. “This was our leverage point and that’s why we’re using it.”

Debate about water rights in the current session is not new.

Van de Wege said in March that he voted against SB 5239, which would have eliminated the role of local governments in determining whether water is legally available before a building permit for a home is issued.

This change would essentially allow a person to drill a well — even if it reduces the water available to others, redirects water to which someone has prior rights or reduces stream flow for a fish habitat.

Van De Wege voted with other Democrats against the bill Feb. 28, saying it would eliminate a key component of the landmark decision, but he was prepared to support it with changes.

Four times in this session, the Senate approved changes to SB 5239 aimed at undoing parts of the Hirst decision. The House still did not act on it, according to the Associated Press.

The last version from June 29 would establish that “evidence of potable water for a building permit may include a water well report for a permit-exempt groundwater withdrawal that is not prohibited by Department of Ecology’s water resources rules.”

It also would allow a local jurisdiction, such as a county or town, to rely on Ecology’s water resource rules when approving a subdivision to determine if there is available potable water.

If your ears perked up at the term “water rights,” SB 5239 would not affect Sequim-area residents under the Dungeness Water Rule, said Van De Wege.

That 2012 agreement between Ecology and Clallam County set up an area in which new water users could purchase the right to get it through the Dungeness Water Exchange. The exchange makes available mitigation rights — water rights or portions of rights — available to people drilling wells. It’s designed to guarantee the water use is legally protected and won’t reduce stream flows.

The exchange also uses state and federal dollars to help replenish local groundwater supplies and restore flows to the Dungeness.

Debate continues

“All 39 counties need water from exempt wells. And that is as critical as any infrastructure in a capital budget,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said last Saturday.

Tharinger called it unfair: “To try to leverage a capital budget bill on a really complex legal policy bill is not appropriate,” he said Wednesday.

The District 24 lawmaker said the best solution to the Hirst logjam might be a bill he is co-sponsoring.

Tharinger’s bill would provide temporary relief by allowing property owners to obtain building permits in certain areas through 2018. It would also create a legislative task force to work on long-term solutions.

About the capital budget, Chapman, D-Port Angeles, noted that the Legislature was able to pass bipartisan transportation and operating budgets. The capital budget, he said, received bipartisan approval in the House, 92-1.

“I have voted for all three budgets and I strongly believe the Senate should pass the bipartisan capital budget now,” he said.

Lawmakers from both bodies are scheduled to return to Olympia today.

Calculating tax bills

A reader asked how lawmakers are estimating future tax bills under the state operating budget and public education funding plan, recently signed by Inslee.

In particular, the reader asked how taxpayers in the Sequim School District will likely be hit with an average $1,000 increase during the plan’s four-year period but neighbors in Port Angeles will likely see none — or even a decrease.

The answer, said Chapman, is complex.

“The property tax calculations are complicated and from what I understand are based on current valuations and current levies in place,” he said.

“Obviously, both Port Townsend and Sequim have higher valuations than [properties in the] PA School District. I believe they also have higher levies already imposed leading to drastically higher property taxes.”

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Assistant Managing Editor Mark Swanson can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55450, or mswanson@peninsuladailynews.com.