SPSCC campus project a casualty of the state budget battle

Kelly Green, Chief Communications & Legislative Affairs Officer for South Puget Sound Community College, gives a July 14 tour of the college's former library. The building is undergoing a nearly complete renovation that has been put on hold due to
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Kelly Green, Chief Communications & Legislative Affairs Officer for South Puget Sound Community College, gives a July 14 tour of the college's former library. The building is undergoing a nearly complete renovation that has been put on hold due to
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Politics & Government

Improvements to schools and hospitals delayed while politicians fight about water

July 15, 2017 08:30 PM

Western State Hospital, the state-run psychiatric facility in Lakewood, has plans to build more beds in the near future to house a crush of patients crowding its wards.

But at least some of that plan is on hold — along with hundreds of other construction jobs around Washington state — because of a political squabble at the Capitol.

The Legislature has yet to pass a capital budget, which pays for projects from school construction to renovations on the Capitol Campus, because of a disagreement over legislation involving rural water rights.

Republicans who control the state Senate have been using the capital budget as a bargaining chip in their push to essentially overturn a state Supreme Court ruling the GOP says is leaving some rural property owners without water.

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If Republicans can’t come to a compromise with the majority-Democrat House before the end of the third special session on Thursday, July 20, the sides might table talks for months — leaving Western State and others waiting for critical construction projects.

The need for more space at Western State is urgent, according to lawmakers from both parties and state officials, because Washington is under court order to provide more timely services to mentally ill defendants, known as forensic patients.

Backups at the hospital have left some patients waiting in local hospital emergency rooms and jails without necessary treatment. The practice is known as “boarding.”

The state has also been slapped with millions in fines for the wait times at the hospital.

“We need to build on that capacity” at Western State, said Kelly Stowe, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees the hospital.

The capital plan overwhelmingly approved by Republicans and Democrats in the state House would pay for 115 new forensic beds at Western State and Eastern State Hospital, according to the Office of Financial Management. Money to design space for another 90-120 forensic beds in the future at the 800-bed Western State is in the House capital budget.

A larger effort to boost mental health services outside of state-run psychiatric hospitals also would likely see millions in construction money under a new capital budget.

Offering a quick facilities tour July 14th Kelly Green,Chief Communications & Legislative Affairs Officer for South Puget Sound Community College stands in the former library currently undergoing a full renovation that has been put on hold due to the current state capital budget stalemate.
Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

In Olympia, the capital budget gridlock has stalled one project midstream. South Puget Sound Community College is renovating a library into classrooms, office space and study space for basic adult education programs.

School officials spread out the work over two budget cycles, meaning money promised in the next capital budget is needed to finish the renovation.

With the capital budget on hold, the work has come “to a screeching halt,” said Kelly Green, who oversees communications and legislative affairs for the college.

The school booked the money ahead of time because the capital budget is usually one of the easier things for lawmakers to agree on. A 92-1 vote in late June on the House capital plan stands as evidence. Democrats only have a one-vote majority in the 98-member chamber.

The Legislature did pass a stop-gap capital budget to continue major construction projects while lawmakers debate the water policy, but Green said the renovations at SPSCC were considered too minor to be included.

The construction delay might push the renovated building’s opening date past the start of the school year, disrupting classes that had already been scheduled for the space, Green said. The building is expected to house about 400 students.

“It really is a badly needed space for them,” Green said.

More than $1 billion of the roughly $4 billion capital budget passed by the House would go to K-12 construction projects, some of it to reduce class sizes.

The stop-gap capital budget also doesn’t pay for hundreds of state employees normally funded by the full-fledged budget. While some agencies are keeping those workers on temporarily with money from other accounts, the state is still figuring out how long that can last, according to OFM.

State Rep. Steve Tharinger, a Sequim Democrat who chairs the House Capital Budget Committee, said Friday he was “guardedly” optimistic a capital budget would get passed before the Legislature’s third special session ends.

Lawmakers might adjourn for the year if negotiators aren’t close to a solution to the water-rights debate by Thursday, July 20, however.

Sen. Judy Warnick, a Republican from Moses Lake, said passing a capital budget by then remains a lofty goal given differences on the water ruling, known as the Hirst decision, and bad blood created last week when Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed tax breaks for manufacturers passed in the state’s operating budget. Republicans and House Democrats had agreed to the cuts as part of a compromise.

“We all want the capital budget, most of us want Hirst fixed, but because of what happened with the veto,” Warnick said, there are “some trust issues.”

In the Hirst decision, the Supreme Court said Whatcom County didn’t adequately protect water resources when approving properties 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 have temporarily stopped some rural development to figure out how to comply with new obligations under Hirst.

The temporary ban has left some property owners who expected to drill wells without a reliable source of water. Many county officials say they don’t have the technology or resources to make the water assessments on their own.

The cost for property owners to do their own evaluation could be between $5,000 to $30,000 said Warnick, who has championed Hirst legislation for the GOP.

Republicans say the ruling is too onerous for local governments and are worried about leaving homeowners without water.

On the other side of the aisle, some Democrats have concerns that reversing the ruling would allow development without enough review on the impact wells have on the water rights of tribes, farmers and others.

Several tribes contend a Hirst change could violate treaty rights, too.

“The Hirst ruling doesn’t mean that no more wells can ever be dug in rural areas,” Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, wrote in an op-ed. “It means that we must act responsibly beforehand.”

Democrats want to pass legislation that temporarily suspends the ruling in order to study the complex water policy further. Republicans are skeptical that option is constitutional.

Key lawmakers are expected back at the Capitol next week to continue grappling with Hirst legislation, Tharinger said. In the meantime, the capital budget wait continues to fuel anxiety of those who are due construction money.

That includes Bill Ryberg, the interim co-president of Tacoma Community College.

Ryberg said in a statement that without a full capital budget, his school and others won’t get funding for “ongoing maintenance and repairs” including “leaking roofs, plumbing repairs, structural fixes, new lighting.”

College groundskeepers, custodial staff, electricians and others are also paid through the capital budget, he said.

“The budget delay places unplanned stresses on the college’s budget,” Ryberg said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein