Politics & Government

Legislature passes $4 billion construction budget, water rights bill

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 say they have reached a deal 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 say they have reached a deal 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

State lawmakers late Thursday approved a $4.3 billion construction budget and legislation to address a rural water-rights debate that had stalled the spending plan since the spring of 2017.

Party leaders announced a compromise Thursday morning to address a 2016 state Supreme Court ruling on water conservation, known as the Hirst decision. The Hirst order increased counties’ responsibilities for regulating the drilling of small wells. That shift left some property owners without water or unable to build on their land.

Republicans refused to pass the state’s construction budget until striking a deal with Democrats to address Hirst. The compromise bill, passed by the House and Senate, would ease the court-ordered regulations on small wells and spend $300 million on water conservation projects throughout the state.

“This bill provides a path forward for the people who just want to build a home on their few acres,” said state Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, in a speech on the Senate floor. Warnick has been a top GOP negotiator on Hirst.

The deal shook the construction budget, called a capital budget, loose from political purgatory. Both chambers of the Legislature also approved that spending plan Thursday night. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign both measures in upcoming days.

The capital budget contains more than $1 billion for school construction and money for mental health facilities and low-income housing projects. Last year was the first time in modern history lawmakers failed to pass a capital budget.

The deadlock led to construction delays, layoffs in state government, an increase in construction costs and the potential loss of federal dollars for some low-income housing projects.

Despite those consequences, lawmakers argued for more than a year about how to address the complex Hirst decision.

State Sen. David Frockt, a Seattle Democrat and the chamber’s top negotiator on the capital budget, called the construction plan “remarkable” and said it would help students, the environment and create thousands of jobs.

“It was time to put this issue to bed,” Frockt said in a floor speech before the vote.

Before the Hirst ruling, counties relied on a relatively simple assessment from the state Department of Ecology to approve building permits for land relying on a well that draws fewer than 5,000 gallons of water per day, known as “permit exempt.”

The court’s order changed that, saying state law requires counties to give wells more scrutiny by studying water availability on their own before issuing building permits. The justices said permit-exempt wells can still drain water resources used by fish and other wildlife and people with senior water rights.

Those assessments can be costly, and some counties simply halted construction relying on permit-exempt wells or required landowners to pay for the expensive water studies themselves. Republicans have said each one can cost more than $5,000.

By the end of the 2017 legislative session, Republicans had pushed to more or less overturn the Hirst ruling while offering millions of dollars on conservation projects to offset the effect of wells.

Democrats had asked to implement a 24-month delay of the ruling to work out a compromise on the issue. Many Democratic lawmakers — and tribes — said extra study of water availability as ordered by the court was necessary to maintain resources.

The bill passed Thursday would spend $300 million over 15 years to restore and enhance watersheds while allowing counties to once again rely on Ecology to issue building permits for land with permit-exempt wells.

The legislation also would reduce the amount of water those wells can draw in many areas of the state and charge a $500 fee for a permit. In the Nisqually area, for example, new permit-exempt wells would be limited to 3,000 gallons per day. In the Puyallup area, that limit would be 950 gallons per day.

The Hirst deal also includes other measures aimed at mitigating the effect of wells such as creating local work groups across the state to develop plans that govern future water usage.

There were mixed reviews on the bill, which passed with a smattering of ‘no’ votes from both Republicans and Democrats.

Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said on the Senate floor that the measure didn’t go far enough to conserve water, especially water used by tribes. Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, said the bill wouldn’t do enough to address a separate lawsuit related to water use for property owners in Skagit county.

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, a Sequim Democrat, summed up the vote, saying the measure was enough to get the Legislature “where everybody is unhappy with it fairly equally.”

“I think that’s the best we’re going to get,” he said.

Democrats, and many in state government, celebrated the passage of the capital budget. They also expressed frustration over GOP tactics to stall the construction money until a Hirst deal was reached.

Typically, capital budgets are approved with bipartisan support and with easier negotiations than the state’s operating budget. While Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature by narrow margins, bonds necessary to implement the capital budget require approval by 60 percent of lawmakers in the House and Senate, giving Republicans power to hold up the spending plan.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, a Covington Democrat, said in an interview that Republicans should have worked to strike a deal without holding the construction projects hostage.

“It’s frustrating that taxpayer dollars went to waste,” said Sullivan, adding that the capital budget “should have been passed last April.”

In an interview Thursday, Warnick said she believes a Hirst deal never would have been reached if the GOP did not hold up the capital budget.

While it took longer than usual to pass, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal, said the capital budget “will help our students.”

“Smaller, rural school districts in particular rely on matching state funds, which come out of the capital budget,” Reykdal said. “That’s going to help them start or complete needed construction projects, such as adding new buildings or replacing old ones. The funding also will provide much-needed jobs in those communities.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein

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