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Legislature ends record-long session with work undone

UPDATED: Thu., July 20, 2017, 10:52 p.m.

The Capitol Rotunda is seen on the last day of the third special session, Thursday, July 20, 2017, in Olympia, Wash. Taken together, per diem expenses taken by lawmakers during the special sessions totaled more than $445,000. (Rachel La Corte / AP)
The Capitol Rotunda is seen on the last day of the third special session, Thursday, July 20, 2017, in Olympia, Wash. Taken together, per diem expenses taken by lawmakers during the special sessions totaled more than $445,000. (Rachel La Corte / AP)

OLYMPIA – After stretching to record length, the Legislature’s 2017 session came to an unusual – and for most lawmakers unsatisfactory – end Thursday with a major policy issue and a $4 billlion construction budget for projects around the state in limbo.

Lawmakers who traveled back to Olympia from their homes or their vacations spent most of the day sitting in meetings or at their desks, talking about stratagems that never quite materialized until it became clear that nothing was going to happen.

They were told they could go home. No bills would be passed, no votes taken. One way or another, the final day of the third consecutive special session would end by midnight.

After previous victories on revising the public school system, a record operating budget and a new family leave policy, they could not manage what Gov. Jay Inslee called “an added layer on the cake of success.”

Inslee said he would not call legislators back until they reach an agreement on a major change to state water rights law – something Senate Republicans say must pass before they will allow a vote on the construction budget.

In news conferences and official statements, Republicans blamed Democrats and vice versa. Efforts to find an agreement to a major change in state water rights law will continue. But not right away.

In the meantime, agencies, schools, colleges and organizations waiting on money from the state’s capital construction budget will have to keep waiting.

That includes Eastern Washington University, which found out Wednesday that lawmakers negotiating the construction budget had decided to spend $67 million on a new Interdisciplinary Science Center, some $7 million more than was in previous versions of that budget. But the money won’t show up until the construction budget passes.

“This is just uncharted territory,” said David Buri, EWU director of governmental relations and a former state legislator.

If a deal on the water-rights legislation can be worked out and a construction budget passed in a few weeks, the project could continue pretty much on time. If it takes until the 2018 session, the university will lose a construction season and costs could go up, Buri said.

The construction budget also has $25 million to renovate a major part of Spokane Community College’s Main Building. Construction was supposed to start July 1 and the college has been paying for some preliminary work out of other funds since then, said Greg Stevens, chief administrative officer for Community Colleges of Spokane.

That will stop, and the college also will have to put off several million dollars in minor projects, regular maintenance, repairs and upgrades that are also in the construction budget, Stevens said. The contractors it planned to use will move on to other projects that can pay them, and by October weather might force the outdoor projects such as roof repair to be put off until next spring.

Smaller projects for a wide range of local government and nonprofit organizations also will wait for money. The Honor Point Military and Aerospace Museum would get $100,000 to upgrade its electrical system, heating and air conditioning and add insulation.

The new museum is open to the public but wants to make the improvements to enhance the experience and protect the exhibits.

“It’s basically a hangar. It’s a work in progress,” said Arne Weinman, treasurer of the museum’s executive board.

When the capital budget passes, the museum probably can get the work done fairly quickly, said Weinman, a retired contractor who hopes to prevail on friends in that industry when the money is available.