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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Dec. 6, 2023

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In Our View: Hirst Things First, Etc.

Legislature must remove all obstacles to capital budget, education funding

The Columbian

he legislative session that begins today is scheduled to be a short one — but there is no shortage of pressing issues. So, as Clark County’s nine legislators — six representatives and three senators from the 17th, 18th and 49th districts — return to work, here are some of the items they should focus upon during the planned 60-day session:

A capital budget. Last year, the $4.1 billion 2017-19 capital budget became entangled in a net of political wrangling. Despite bipartisan support for the bill, some Republicans insisted upon speciously linking it to a water rights issue.

The result is that numerous construction projects have been unable to move forward. The capital budget pays for the planning, construction or renovation of state-approved facilities such as schools and parks, as well as contributing to local capital projects. One Vancouver example of the impact is construction of the Bridgeview Education and Employment Resource Center, which has been hampered by the lack of a capital budget.

Every county in the state has been affected by the Legislature’s failure to pass a capital budget last year. That shortsightedness has delayed projects that put people to work, boost local economies, and create facilities that enhance a community’s quality of life. Passing the budget should be among the Legislature’s paramount duties this year.

• Education funding. Despite last year’s grand agreement, lawmakers must come up with another $1 billion or so this year. That is because their plan to delay funding for teacher salaries was deemed unacceptable by the state Supreme Court.

Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed taking the funds from state reserves and replenishing those reserves with a new carbon tax. A carbon tax might indeed have merit, but it should be considered separately from education funding. If the idea is worthy, let it stand on its merits rather than as a backdoor solution for funding schools.

A solution to the Hirst decision. This is the water rights issue that was linked to the capital budget, and it stems from a state Supreme Court ruling. That decision protected senior water rights when it comes to approval of new development, but critics say it goes too far. The effect has been to halt development in some rural areas, preventing landowners from building structures on their property.

Like the lack of a capital budget, this hampers jobs and economic development — particularly in areas that really need it. A haphazard fix for the Hirst decision, however, could be counterproductive as it would invite lawsuits that would delay implementation of the changes.

Passing a capital budget should be rather painless, but both the prospect of a carbon tax and a fix to the Hirst conundrum could reveal the level of partisanship in Olympia. Democrats now have a majority in the Senate following a special election in November, giving them control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office.

With unfettered power comes a word of caution: Democrats should avoid the kind of one-dimensional power wielding that has become de rigueur in Washington, D.C. The people of this state will be best served by a thoughtful Legislature that recognizes neither party has a monopoly on good ideas. If Democrats are eager to pass a carbon tax, they should come up with a plan that can garner support from at least some Republicans and can be effectively sold to Washingtonians.

Now, it’s time for lawmakers to get to work.

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