The state Legislature’s record-long session came to a bitter close Thursday as lawmakers adjourned without a $4 billion construction budget or legislation addressing a rural water rights dispute.
Leaders at the Capitol said they could not muster a last-second compromise on a change to the Washington State Supreme Court’s Hirst decision before the end of a third overtime session — sending legislators home with unfinished business.
The finish capped a year marked by massive bipartisan changes to K-12 school funding with a “sour” ending, said Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.
Lawmakers “did not add to their successes tonight,” he told media Thursday.
Be the first to know.
No one covers what is happening in our community better than we do. And with a digital subscription, you'll never miss a local story.
Republicans who control the state Senate were pushing for a permanent fix to the 2016 Hirst ruling, and refused to hold a vote on the capital budget, which pays for construction projects throughout the state, without such a deal to address the court order.
That ruling affects the way some people can develop property in rural areas by requiring counties to more intensively regulate water rights. Hirst has effectively stopped some rural homeowners from drilling wells on their land, halting some construction as a result.
Many in the GOP said the state shouldn’t be able to build if private citizens can’t build.
“It’s a property-rights issue for people in the rural areas,” said state Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Water and Economic Development Committee.
Warnick said for many people, the Hirst ruling “precludes them from using their property.”
Inslee, along with the majority-Democrat House, supported a 24-month delay of the Hirst ruling with an offer to continue negotiating on the issue.
Some Democrats have concerns that a change to the ruling would violate treaties with tribes over senior water rights and would result in too-little scrutiny on the effect of rural development on water availability.
In the Hirst ruling, the Supreme Court found Whatcom County did not adequately protect water resources when approving building permits for properties relying on new wells.
Most counties use the state Department of Ecology to evaluate if enough water is available for smaller wells, known as permit-exempt, that draw fewer than 5,000 gallons per day.
The court said those small wells can still sap water used by fish, for farming and more, and said counties can’t rely on Ecology to make permitting decisions.
“There are seven million people in the state of Washington, and when exempt wells were started, there was a whole lot less people than that,” said Rep. Larry Springer, a Democrat from Kirkland who negotiated on the topic for the House.
He added: “We’re trying to get in front of a resource management issue before it becomes a crisis.”
As a byproduct of the ruling, some counties have stopped some rural development to figure out how to comply with Hirst.
Republicans said a temporary fix doesn’t give enough certainty to land owners and counties to move forward.
The GOP is hoping to essentially overturn the ruling permanently, but proposed more money for water conservation projects and some input for tribes on development as a sweetener.
“We offered to put a lot of money into water resources, ongoing,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, a Republican from Ritzville. “We offered to put permanent money into removing fish barriers to make those streams more effective.
“We did things that are good for all Washingtonians and yet it wasn’t enough for some people in the House.”
Top lawmakers appeared ready to stay until midnight Thursday, when the Legislature’s 30-day special session was scheduled to end, in hopes the other party would make concessions on Hirst.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, a Democrat from Covington, said party leaders eventually told House Democrats to go home, ending hope of an agreement and spurring the formal adjournment around 7:45 p.m.
The fallout over Hirst took the capital budget down with it, an unusual occurrence in Olympia. Since capital budgets come with projects around Washington, they’re usually bipartisan and popular.
Officials couldn’t point to another time when the Legislature failed to pass a construction budget.
This year’s agreed-to capital budget had more than $1 billion for school construction, some of which was aimed at reducing class sizes and helping meet the state Supreme Court’s McCleary education court order.
Sullivan said he’s worried the state Supreme Court might look poorly on the Legislature not passing a capital budget to help build more classroom space.
The high court said in its 2012 ruling that the state must fix the way it pays for schools, including following through on a promise to lower class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.
Lawmakers are in contempt of court for their slow progress in meeting the McCleary requirements. Legislative leaders have said they think the operating budget they passed last month addresses most of the issues raised in the McCleary ruling, including paying to hire more teachers.
But the court might not agree that lawmakers’ work is done if there aren’t enough classrooms to put those those teachers in, Sullivan said.
“The court’s made it clear that it’s disingenuous to say that we’ve reduced class sizes if you’re not actually providing the capacity in the building to actually lower those class sizes,” Sullivan said.
The capital budget also had money for new beds at Western State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Lakewood. Officials say those beds are a critical part of meeting a court order to provide timely care for mentally ill defendants. The capital budget had other investments in mental health services aimed at diverting patients away from the overbooked hospital.
The construction money pays for jobs — thousands of them. The state Office of Financial Management said Thursday several hundred state workers are at risk of being laid off. Some may temporarily be paid for out of other funds but how long that can last is unclear, according to OFM.
More state building also means new construction jobs. OFM estimated nearly 8,000 jobs in 2017 would be created by the capital budget.
House Democrats were adamant in recent weeks the Hirst negotiations should be separate from the capital budget. Both sides pledged to keep talking about Hirst during interim in case they can reach a deal.
Inslee told reporters Thursday evening he would call lawmakers back if they reached a Hirst deal for a brief time to “promptly” pass the bill, and a capital budget.
“We made it clear we’ll continue to work on this, but it’s been frustrating,” Sullivan said. “School construction is a really important issue, mental health is a critical issue. To not pass that just doesn’t make any sense.”
But Republicans remained committed to resolving the dispute over Hirst with a compromise before a capital budget is passed.
Warnick said it’s what her constituents are demanding.
“I’ve heard over and over and over from people, ‘Stay strong’ — still support this Hirst fix,’” she said. “Not a delay ... a complete fix.”