Fire and Water II
Wednesday, July 26, 2017
FIRE AND WATER II: With members dwindling and walking out, the record-breaking 193-day session in Olympia ended with a whimper last week.
Republicans were annoyed with the governor’s veto of their tax break for rural manufacturers, and had already vowed to stall the state’s capital budget without a fix to the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision that limits new domestic water wells, leaving property owners in many rural areas without access to water and unable to build homes on their property.
Lawmakers proposed several bills in response to the ruling, including an offer by House Democrats (HB 2248) to allow property owners to obtain water-access permits for two years, while a legislative task force works on a permanent solution, the Washington Policy Center noted. House and Senate Republicans, however, said people need a permanent fix now. They want the House to vote on SB 5239, to reduce the harm imposed by the Hirst decision. Essentially the bill reasserts the primacy of the state Department of Ecology in water resource management determinations, a primacy in county planning decisions the high court found misplaced last fall. The bill passed the Senate four times this year, but House Democrats have refused to allow a vote on it in the House.
The capital budget for the 2015-17 biennium totals $3.8 billion, including $2.3 billion from state general obligation bonds and $1.5 billion from a variety of dedicated fees and taxes, federal funds and timber revenues. Additionally, $2.8 billion from incomplete projects unspent from the previous budget is plowed back into the current proposal for a total of $6.6 billion, according to the financial briefing for the budget.
“To say we are disappointed that we are leaving Olympia without a Hirst fix is an understatement,” Reps. Vincent Buys and Luanne Van Werven noted in a joint statement. “The temporary 24-month ‘fix’ put forth by the Seattle-centric House majority is nothing more than a farce. Let us be clear: this ‘solution’ is meaningless for Whatcom County and other rural communities throughout our state. A temporary solution can leave permitting or financing issues in limbo over the long-term. Not to mention it routinely can take up to two years to obtain a building permit. All their bill does is provide more uncertainty for families, developers, lenders and others.”
While there’s enough venom and invective to fire state elections for many years—certainly continuing to widen the rural-urban divide in state politics—the quarrel breaks down rather simply: Democrats want a solution that includes money and resources to address a real problem of water oversubscription; Republicans do not want a solution that involves money and resources.
Democrats would probably yield on the “quick fix” for Hirst if they received legislative assurance from Republicans that would deal with longer-term considerations of water rights and water availability in a forthright way. Without that, the “permanent fix” for Hirst will never be permanently fixed, but certainly would allow for a brushfire stampede on permit applications for rural developments that could overwhelm planning departments around the state for a decade.
Without an agreement on a water-rights bill, Senate Republicans have held up the two-year, $4 billion capital construction budget. That means that no new money for school construction, sewer projects, mental health facilities and other projects across the state is available, and that some state workers who are now paid by existing agency funds might ultimately face layoffs.
Already, Republicans around the state are writing their white-hot campaign literature for next year.
For Whatcom County, the consequences of failing to pass a capital budget carries very real consequences, with more than $80 million in construction projects slated for the 40th and 42nd Legislative Districts. Projects lost or stalled include $2 million in matching funds for a new and much-needed behavioral health triage and wellness center; $2.5 million for a clean energy fund that would assist jobs at Alcoa’s Intalco plant; $4 million in asbestos flood control and cleanup for Swift Creek, along with millions of more dollars for cleanup and dredging of Squalicum waterway and other harbors and streams around the county; and more than $36 million in education improvements for Whatcom Community College.
Held hostage for no particular purpose or advantage to anyone was $10.1 million to keep the core of Blanchard Mountain from being logged.
“Without Senate approval, there will be no new funding to keep parts of Blanchard safe from logging,” Rep. Kris Lytton reported.
“The budget would have funded critical beds at Western State Hospital and facilities across the state to maintain federal accreditation and provide the care and service for those facing mental health illnesses,” Sen. Kevin Ranker noted. “The budget also would have supported hundreds of public and more than 19,000 private jobs.
“In our district, the capital budget would have funded critical community and recreation programs in North Puget Sound, and finally create the Harriet Spanel State Forest, also known as Blanchard Mountain.
“It is unconscionable that we would go home without voting on this critical budget,” Ranker said. “Our job is to do what is best for our communities and state. It is time for us to come together and govern. I remain fully supportive of the agreed upon, bipartisan capital budget and will work tirelessly to get it passed. It is my hope that Senate Republicans will join us.”
His hope seems remote for now, with state Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Mason County Democrat, caucusing strongly with Republicans on Hirst. A special election in November for the 45th District Senate seat—Seattle’s tech-heavy Eastside suburbs—could change the dynamics and break the impasse. The fire of that election will set the tone and tenor for the slate of state elections next year.