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Impasse over water rights bill means $4 billion state construction budget unlikely to get vote

UPDATED: Wed., July 19, 2017, 10:51 p.m.

OLYMPIA – Things are usually pretty quiet in and around the Capitol Campus in the summer. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA – Things are usually pretty quiet in and around the Capitol Campus in the summer. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – After 193 straight days of legislative session, the clock will almost certainly run out Thursday on lawmakers’ attempts to pass a $4 billion budget for construction projects around the state, despite broad support for the deal.

That means the state may have to wait until 2018 for the Legislature to give the green light to a wide range of projects, from new classrooms for public schools to buildings on college campuses, state hospital expansions and water quality improvements. Or lawmakers could be called back for yet another special session later this year.

In the Spokane area, the spending plan includes some $114 million in construction, with the largest project being a $60 million Interdisciplinary Science Center at Eastern Washington University.

Negotiators reached an agreement on the 2017-19 capital construction budget late Tuesday that has the support of both parties in both chambers. But they are not likely to vote on it Thursday, which is the last day of their third special session.

That’s because another group of legislators failed to agree on a way to change state water laws, which the Republican-controlled Senate majority has said must pass before they will vote on the final version of the capital budget.

In separate news conferences Wednesday afternoon, House and Senate leaders agreed they were at an impasse on legislation to address a Washington Supreme Court ruling that is blocking construction in some rural and suburban areas because wells can’t receive permits.

House Democrats offered a 24-month temporary fix they said would allow current projects to move forward in exchange for passing the capital budget and continuing work on a permanent solution. Senate and House Republicans said they wanted a permanent fix on water rights, and without that, they would not vote on the capital budget.

Gov. Jay Inslee called the 24-month proposal “the best approach to give the Legislature time to evaluate a permanent fix while giving suffering property owners immediate relief.”

But Republicans countered that homeowners often need more than two years to complete their projects and banks would be leery of loaning money on a temporary fix.

Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, said her constituents are telling her to hold out for a permanent solution. “They’re telling us ‘Do not back down.’ The people in our districts are not stupid,” she said.

In part, a permanent deal foundered on the difference between “consent” and “consult.” House Democrats had proposed legislation that would require tribes and local governments to consent to new wells in some aquifers and watersheds. Republicans wanted tribes and local governments to be consulted, and have input, but not veto power.

A few legislative leaders held out a glimmer of hope that a deal could materialize in the waning hours.

“I, for one, am hopeful there will be a breakthrough,” Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, said at the GOP press conference before adding, “I know it will be difficult.”

Difficult not just because weeks of negotiations on the water rights legislation are at an impasse, but because most legislators are not in Olympia and would have to be called back from their homes or from out-of-state trips.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he could probably get enough senators back to pass both the capital budget and water rights legislation if there was a deal, but won’t call them back without one. House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said the House would likely close out the session sometime Thursday without any votes.

Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, who wrote water rights changes the Senate passed four times, said she’s still open to negotiations, although none are scheduled.

Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, who represented House Democrats in the water rights negotiations, said those talks will continue but “we may need to take a little breath here.” Negotiators might begin talking again next week, he said.

If a compromise on the water rights legislation is reached in the coming weeks or months, Inslee could call lawmakers back for another special session to pass it and the capital budget later in the year.