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Olympia isn’t so different than that other Washington

Sun., Sept. 10, 2017

Over the past few years, as Washington’s Legislature has deepened into intractability, some state lawmakers have occasionally tried to gloss over their difficulties by comparing themselves to their counterparts in Washington, D.C.

Sure, it took us half a year to agree to a budget, the argument goes, but at least we eventually did it!

Unlike the other Washington.

Sure, we spent months and months haggling in special sessions over differences that were crystal clear from the very outset, but we finally compromised!

Unlike the other Washington.

Yes, it was an endless game of chicken once again, with special sessions and secrecy and no public process and bad faith all around, but the citizen lawmakers have managed once again to do what lawmakers in the other Washington cannot: Give some, get some and produce a budget!

As if they had a choice.

Unlike that other Washington.

If there were ever much truth to this, it’s fading fast as the state’s construction budget is held hostage for the 10th straight week. This standoff followed another extended staring contest over a remaking of the state’s education-funding system, which produced as poor an example of representative government as you could imagine: secret negotiations, lack of public participation, and an entirely new method for funding schools that people are still trying to grasp.

All of that sausage emerged just barely in time to avoid a government shutdown.

And that’s the good news. The Legislature’s subsequent inability to reach agreement on the capital budget – or, you might say, the failure of Democrats to pay Republican ransom on an issue with a not-even-tenuous connection to state capital projects – leaves almost $4 billion in projects statewide on the sidelines. School districts, colleges, veterans cemeteries, churches, mental health facilities – all have work in limbo while lawmakers see who can hold their breath the longest.

Politics stalemates progress.

Just like the other Washington.

The conflict is built around finding a fix for the Hirst ruling, a state Supreme Court decision in 2016 that has thrown uncertainty into developments relying on unpermitted wells across the state.

In Hirst, justices ruled that Whatcom County erred in failing to account for the impacts of new wells on stream flows and found that counties must make sure there is enough water available to meet all needs, including wildlife and senior water-rights holders, before issuing building permits.

Unpermitted wells represent a small but significant number of all water users, with a bigger impact on rural areas. The decision threw county officials into turmoil, as they tried to figure out how to interpret and respond, and the confusion rolls downhill to homeowners, developers, lenders …

The state needs a fix. The relationship between that fix and the capital budget, though, is kind of like the relationship between hurricane relief and the debt ceiling.

Not a real-world relationship at all.

The Senate Republican majority, led by Ritzville’s Mark Schoesler, has turned Hirst into a hill to die on. Their mantra has been: If homeowners can’t build, neither can the state. Democrats have proposed a two-year reprieve for well-drilling, in order to work on a permanent solution, but critics say this doesn’t do enough to eliminate the uncertainty around the issue.

It’s complicated, and perhaps not best suited for solving via ultimatum. The necessity of this approach – not the need for a fix, but the ransoming of state construction projects in pursuit of one – may escape you. You may wonder whether something else is going on here. A stubborn desire for political victory elevated above getting things done. A commitment to winning a battle of the wills. A breath-holding contest.

You know: the very kind of counterproductive, corrosive political stalemate that we now presume to be the natural state of that other Washington.

That bad Washington.

The elephant in the middle of the standoff is the special election in the 45th District. If Democrat Makha Dhingra wins there in November – as she did in the primary – it will mark the end of the one-vote Republican majority in the Senate. It may be that this is the hill this particular Senate majority dies on one way or the other, so they’re going down swinging while Democrats wait.

That’s surely an oversimplification, but the motivations here are wider and more subterranean than they appear. And if that’s all it comes down to – machinations over majority, strategic shutdowns of projects – then we’re no longer this other, better Washington when it comes to our state government.

We’re just like the other one.