No capital budget, no Hirst fix as Legislature adjourns

After a long session that saw the Legislature reach a hard-fought compromise on the operating budget to address the McCleary decision, policymakers left Olympia last week without passing a 2017-2019 capital budget nor a solution to the water-related Hirst decision.

AGC strongly supported both the $4.2-billion capital budget as well as the Hirst fix. Senate Republicans had long made clear that they would not pass a capital budget without the Hirst legislation passing first. Meanwhile, House Democrat leaders refused to bring the Hirst fix up for a vote, even though it would likely pass. Thus, neither measure passed. While supporting both measures, AGC called on legislators to de-link the two issues and work on them separately. The Governor has said he would call legislators back for a fourth special session, but only if an agreement on both matters was in hand.

A summary of the two issues:

Capital budget

Both the House and Senate passed their own slightly differing versions of the 2017-2019 capital budget during the legislative session, but a final vote on a compromise measure wasn’t taken. The $4.2 billion capital budget as passed the Senate would dedicate a record $1.1 billion toward school construction. Major investments include:

  • School Construction Assistance Program: $779 million in state bonds and $185 million from the Common School Construction Account;
  • $17.5 million for K-3 class-size reduction grants;
  • $40 million for grants to small, rural school districts;
  • $23 million for grants to distressed schools, and
  • $26 million for skill centers.

The proposal also includes $857 million in total appropriations and alternative financing authority for higher-education facilities, including $493 million in general-obligation bonds. Of the total spending authority, $428 million would go to the community and technical college system and $429 million to Washington’s public four-year institutions.

The Senate plan contains $112.5 million for flood-control and water-supply projects, and well as $164 million for drinking-water loans and grants, $220 million for the Water-Pollution Control Revolving Program and $35 million for the Centennial Clean-Water Program.

Mental-health needs would receive $78 million in the Senate proposal, which also addresses a shortfall in the environmental-cleanup account funded by the state’s hazardous-substance tax and fully restores the Department of Ecology’s previously delayed cleanup projects. It includes $43 million in additional toxic cleanup and prevention, along with $80 million for stormwater-related financial assistance.

Hirst decision

In its 6-3 ruling, the state Supreme Court in Whatcom County v. Hirst said Whatcom County had failed to protect water resources by allowing new wells to reduce flow in streams for fish and other uses. The court said counties must ensure, independently of the state, that water is physically and legally available before issuing building permits in certain areas. The practical effect of the Hirst decision is that no county in Washington State can allow any new private well anywhere without conducting a very expensive hydrogeological study of each well site to determine if there is some potential impact to the Minimum Instream Flow of local streams or creeks, thereby preventing all private wells except for those who can afford such studies. While the Hirst decision impacted Whatcom County specifically, most counties are now not providing permits for any new wells.

A bill (SB 5239) which the Senate passed four times this year says a person who applies for a building permit — or a local agency that grants a permit — would not need to review whether the water supply impairs senior water rights, by and large reversing the Hirst decision. The House never voted on it.

A Hirst fix acceptable to the House and Senate appeared to be within reach several weeks ago. Reps. David Taylor, R-Moxee, and Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, proposed allowing wells, but while charging new drilling fees to raise money for stream-enhancement projects.

There is strong disagreement, however, with regard to the role of the Tribes. Many House Democrats want Tribes to provide “consent” regarding a permit; Republicans generally want Tribes to be “consulted.”

While that effort fell apart, at the end of the legislative session House Democrats offered landowners a 24-month window to drill wells while lawmakers worked on a permanent policy. Senate Republicans said rural families and communities need more than a two-year reprieve and questioned whether a short-term fix was workable for property owners, counties and lenders. That effort, too, failed.

Republicans maintain that if House leadership allowed either the original bill (SB 5230) or the Taylor/Blake proposal up for a vote, it would pass as several House Democrats seem poised to join all Republicans in passing a Hirst fix. But House leaders have not allowed a vote.

For more information, contact AGC Chief Lobbyist Jerry VanderWood, 360.352.5000.