Politics & Government

Why the Democratic dream of a construction budget is still in flux despite new majority

FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2016 file photo, Bud Breakey and his wife Deborah pose for a photo with their daughter Kaylin, 15 mos., by the water well they paid to drill on property they own near Bellingham, Wash. where they hope to eventually build a house. Lawmakers are tangling over legislation to address a recent Washington Supreme Court decision that put the onus on counties to determine whether water is legally available in certain rural areas before they issue building permits. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)
FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2016 file photo, Bud Breakey and his wife Deborah pose for a photo with their daughter Kaylin, 15 mos., by the water well they paid to drill on property they own near Bellingham, Wash. where they hope to eventually build a house. Lawmakers are tangling over legislation to address a recent Washington Supreme Court decision that put the onus on counties to determine whether water is legally available in certain rural areas before they issue building permits. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file) AP

Democrats waged a hard-fought and expensive battle to regain control of the Washington state Senate during this election cycle, but one of the party’s top priorities still might be stalled despite the win.

The election Tuesday of Manka Dhingra as senator from the 45th Legislative District means Democrats soon will have a one-vote majority in that chamber once she is sworn in. They already control the state House and the Governor’s Office.

Trouble is Democrats need 60-percent approval in the Legislature to pass the financial package needed to approve a construction budget, which has languished in political purgatory since summer.

Democrats desperately want to pass that budget, which pays for a multitude of projects across the state and the salaries of some state workers facing layoffs. Gov. Jay Inslee said a special session in December to do so is on the table.

Republicans have been holding up approval of the construction budget, which usually passes with strong bipartisan support, over a disagreement concerning rural water policy.

Tuesday’s election of Dhingra hasn’t changed the Republican stance.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, soon to be in the minority, remained steadfastly against a construction budget, known as the capital budget, without an agreement to address a 2016 state Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision. Schoesler predicted fellow Republicans would feel the same.

“Show me a Hirst fix that can get the support of 60 percent of the members,” he said. “What’s changed?”

The Hirst ruling placed new regulations on counties for approving the drilling of small wells. That ruling has effectively halted some rural construction and left some property owners without water.

Some small wells, known as permit-exempt, used to be free of such regulations, and the state once used a fairly simple process to decide if they were legal.

But the court ruled permit-exempt wells can drain significant water from senior water-rights holders, such as tribes, and affect the environment and must be more strongly regulated.

Republicans have pushed to more or less reverse the ruling while investing in other water-conservation projects to mitigate the effects of small wells. The GOP says the court-ordered regulations are too onerous for counties and homeowners to contend with.

Democrats have fought for a 24-month delay to the Hirst ruling with a promise that negotiations toward addressing the ruling would continue. Many in the party believe scrutiny of water usage is important enough not to reverse the ruling entirely.

In the meantime, Democrats want the construction budget passed. It’s expected to have about $4 billion in construction money, including more than $1 billion for schools and money for mental health facilities and more.

Neither side appears to have budged since the Legislature went home in July.

Democrats say they’re still committed to trying to find agreement with the GOP. Now with a majority, they believe they have the upper hand in talks.

Inslee said “it would be preferable to have a more permanent solution” for Hirst. But, he said, the ability to put the capital budget up for a floor vote, coupled with a general ability to dictate the agenda in the Legislature, might put new pressure on some in the GOP to cave on the party’s hardline stance on linking the capital budget to Hirst.

If that doesn’t work, Inslee said, there is a possibility Democrats could try to push the 24-month Hirst delay through without Republican support in hopes it would satisfy enough members of the GOP to pass the capital budget.

The idea of a temporary delay has been met coolly by GOP leadership.

Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, said Thursday during an event in Pasco the delay measure “would be the wrong way to go.” Warnick, the top GOP negotiator on Hirst, expressed concern that banks won’t loan to home builders without permanent assurance new wells would be legal.

Schoesler said it would be a mistake to pass a temporary fix for Hirst. He said other issues get more permanent solutions, so Hirst should as well.

“So why is water a temporary fix, but transportation, higher ed, K-12 get a permanent fix?” Schoesler said, referring to past bipartisan legislation such as a $16 billion transportation package approved in 2015. “Water is as fundamental as anything, and this governor hasn’t shown any real plan that will fix it.”

The capital budget puzzle represents the first test for Democrats as the ruling party in Olympia. So far, the path forward remains unclear.

In the meantime, Democrats continue to fret as construction projects languish.

State workers also have been laid off because of the lack of a capital budget. More layoffs are expected if the stalemate continues.

“I would support trying to find a way to do a capital budget as quickly as possible,” said Sen. David Frockt, a Seattle Democrat who leads capital budget talks for Democrats in the chamber. “I think inherent in that, there’s going to have to be some resolution on Hirst to get everything loose. But I think with the change in majorities, there could be some ways for that to happen.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein

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