A major Olympia deadlock—which has stalled several Seattle construction projects—appears to be broken.
Republicans and Democrats on the Washington Senate Agriculture, Water & Natural Resources Committee — including two key Senate Republicans—unanimously recommended approval of a compromise bill on the so-called Hirst issue Thursday afternoon. About $4.3 billion in state-funded construction projects are being held hostage in return for a compromise on the Hirst issue between the two parties. The bill still has to be passed by the full Senate and full House.
For all of last year—including the entire 2017 legislative session—Republicans and Democrats have butted heads with no movement on this matter.
A 2016 Washington Supreme Court decision, the Hirst ruling, has blocked landowners from digging new wells without proving they won’t threaten nearby stream levels needed for fish. The ruling has essentially halted construction of homes and businesses in many rural areas. In 2017, Democrats and Republicans could not agree on a bill to work through this problem.
Meanwhile, legislative Republicans said they would not pass a $4.3 billion capital budget, both sides had agreed on actual projects and appropriations, without a permanent solution to the rural-wells problem. Republicans, minorities in both chambers, have significant clout on this matter because 60 percent each of the House and Senate must approve the $4.3 billion in bonds to finance the projects. Democrats need GOP help to reach that 60 percent mark on each chamber.
In Seattle, this has stalled providing $130 million in construction money for the University of Washington, including $24 million for upgrading the Burke Museum. Several other Seattle construction projects—building a new Hugo House at its old location, upgrading classical music venues and building a Filipino community center—also have not received state money because of the impasse. Other appropriations in limbo include $48 million for Puget Sound restoration projects.
The capital budget also includes more than $900 million for statewide school construction projects and another $100 million for mental health facilities.
The GOP senators on agriculture and water committee who voted for the compromise bill included Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake and the leading Republican legislator on the Hirst issues, and Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, the ranking Republican on the Senate capital budget committee.
Agriculture and water committee chairman Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said the compromise Hirst bill will likely pass the Senate. It was unknown late Thursday what the Democrat-controlled House will do. However, House and Senate Demmcrats are usually on the same wavelength on Hirst matters. “We’re really,really pleased this is happening,” he said.
Warnick said: “We’ve agreed on a path forward.” She was not sure whether all of the 24 Republicans in the Senate will support it, but seemed confident enough will do do. Assuming every legislative Democrat in Olympia supports the compromise, the bond package requiring 60 percent approval that bill will need five Senate Republicans and 10 House Republicans to approve it.
The compromise addresses 15 specific watersheds—essentially rivers and their tributaries. Each watershed would have a committee of stakeholders—ranging from tribes to developers to local governments—to look at the well-digging-permits applications for each watershed. The Washington Department of Ecology would be in charge of the 15 committees. If approved, a rural well-digger would be able to extract 950 gallons a day for each building or for an outdoor area.
Also, the bill would have the Legislature appropriate $300 million over the next 15 years to tackle environmental mitigation measures needed to deal with the digging of the new wells.