No fix for water rights ruling — and no construction budget — expected before lawmakers adjourn

The Olympian

Washington state lawmakers appeared as if they would adjourn for the year Thursday without resolving a dispute over water rights, as well as without passing a construction budget that would pay for about $4 billion in projects across the state.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said efforts to broker a deal to respond to the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision were at an impasse Wednesday afternoon. The 2016 court ruling left some rural landowners unable to drill wells on their property, hampering their ability to build homes.

With negotiations falling apart, no vote was expected Thursday on a new two-year capital budget, which pays for construction projects, Sullivan said. Republican leaders who control the state Senate have said they won’t approve the construction budget without a long-term fix for Hirst.

“In the meantime, we lose an opportunity to create jobs in every corner of the state, with a capital budget that has already been agreed to,” Sullivan said.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he wasn’t sure what the next step would be.

In the Hirst decision, the Supreme Court said Whatcom County didn’t adequately protect water resources when approving developments relying on new wells.

Most counties lean on the state Department of Ecology to evaluate the availability of water for smaller wells, known as permit-exempt, that are drawing less than 5,000 gallons a day.

Yet even small wells can drain water used by fish, for farming and more. The court ruled counties need to scrutinize the availability of water and make the permitting decisions on their own.

As a result, some counties temporarily have stopped some rural development to figure out how to comply with those new obligations. Some officials also have said their counties don’t have the resources to comply with Hirst.

Democrats who control the state House had proposed delaying implementation of the ruling for two years to give lawmakers time to agree on a permanent solution. Republican leaders have been pushing to essentially overturn the ruling permanently.

On Wednesday, Republican Sen. Judy Warnick of Moses Lake said the proposed two-year delay doesn’t give landowners the certainty they need to build. Banks, for example, might not provide loans for projects they aren’t sure would be legal in two years, Warnick said.

Schoesler added that cities and counties can’t plan properly with the temporary change and no promised solution later on.

Bret Espey of Bellingham testified before a state House committee Tuesday, March 28 that rural property owners are "collateral damage" from the recent state Supreme Court decision involving water rights and the use of domestic wells.

“If there’s a fix to be found, it needs to be found right now,” Warnick said.

Democrats worried that not passing a capital budget would threaten other investments the state is making to improve its mental health system, as well as comply with a court order to fix the state pays for schools.

The agreed-upon capital budget includes about $1 billion for public school construction – some of it help to lower class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, which is required by the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling. The operating budget lawmakers approved last month included money to pay for the staffing costs associated with the lower class sizes, but classroom space remains an issue, Sullivan said.

“Now, without a capital budget that actually funds school construction, there’s questions of whether they’ll be able to implement those K-3 class-size reductions, and other things,” Sullivan said.

The capital budget also includes money for construction of beds at Western State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Lakewood. Lawmakers say the hospital needs more beds to comply with a court order requiring timely treatment of mentally ill defendants.

The capital budget has money for other improvements to the mental health system aimed at diverting patients away from crowded Western State.

Sen. Randi Becker, a Republican from Eatonville, said that construction is spaced out over a long period of time and could be delayed and begin next year.

At the same time, she said “to me it’s urgent” to get the mental health construction started now.

Thursday marks the final day of the Legislature’s third special session, bringing them to a record of 193 days in session in a single year.

While lawmakers passed a budget June 30 in the nick of time to avoid a partial shutdown of a state government, they’ve remained in Olympia to hash out their differences over the capital budget and Hirst.

Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, said there would be “no utility to calling another special session” if lawmakers aren’t ready to take a vote on either a Hirst fix or the capital budget.

Inslee said Wednesday that he supports the 24-month temporary fix to Hirst floated by House Democrats.

“At this point, a 24-month delay is the best approach to give the legislature time to evaluate a permanent fix while giving suffering property owners immediate relief,” Inslee said in a statement.

Unless another special session is called, lawmakers aren’t scheduled to reconvene until January.

State Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland and the deputy House majority leader, said he and a handful of other lawmakers intend to continue working on the Hirst issue even if the Legislature is not in session.

“It’s harder to do, of course, when we’re not here, when we’re in the four corners of the state,” Springer said. “But we’ll certainly make every attempt to try and get together.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein

Related stories from Bellingham Herald