In Our View: Capital Budget Held Hostage

Senate Republicans link money to Hirst decision, stalling projects across state

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Although the state’s biennial budget has been approved and signed by the governor, the brinkmanship is continuing in Olympia. A $4 billion capital budget is being held up over a dispute involving water rights — which has little to do with a budget that helps build schools, community projects, parks and other items that contribute to quality of life in Washington.

Senate Republicans are refusing to consider the capital budget until the Legislature solves the conundrum created by the state Supreme Court last year in what is known as the Hirst decision. That decision does, indeed, call for a remedy from lawmakers, but the capital budget should not be used as leverage by Senate leaders. The capital budget should be approved.

That budget — which passed the House of Representatives by a 92-1 vote — presents a more pressing issue than the Hirst decision, yet Republicans are determined to link the two. As Jim Camden of The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review wrote, “It was as if Senate Republicans, having taken the capital budget hostage, were willing to shoot their hostage rather than negotiate the ransom.”

Delays in approval of the capital budget — and its possible demise — create damaging ripples throughout the state. For example, lawmakers recently approved an additional $1.8 billion in spending for K-12 public education but, as Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said, “All our work to fund schools doesn’t go far when they take their ball and go home, leaving Washington with no new construction for schools.”

The same can be said for other projects, such as a proposed Bridgeview Education and Employment Resource Center in Vancouver, which would centralize services for low-income community members. Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, has joined with Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, and others in garnering bipartisan support for the project, which is dependent upon the capital budget. “A few Senate Republican leaders are jeopardizing that work by holding the entire state hostage to a complex water rights bill that has federal and tribal implications,” Wylie said.

Therein lies the difficulty of dealing with the Hirst decision. The Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that counties must make an independent decision about whether enough water is available before approving a building permit for a project that requires a new well. Previously, counties could rely upon the state Department of Ecology to make that decision. The new procedure is cost prohibitive for many counties, and critics say it has halted much-needed development in rural areas and prevented landowners from constructing previously planned projects.

The Legislature should, indeed, address the issue. As the Yakima Herald-Republic wrote editorially, “A return to common sense would be much appreciated by the property owners who are enduring an undue burden.” But the issue is difficult. The court ruling has support from environmentalists and from tribes that hold treaty rights to various waterways. Those groups need to be included in negotiations, lest a haphazard solution from the Legislature invite further litigation that is costly and time-consuming.

Meanwhile, holding up the capital budget also harms rural communities and rural counties — the very areas most affected by the Hirst decision. Projects in all regions of the state are being needlessly delayed by intransigence from Senate Republicans.

Tying the capital budget to the Hirst decision amounts to legislative malpractice that has Olympia in yet another round of political maneuvering.