OLYMPIA – Lawmakers reached a deal on a major rewrite of state water law, unblocking the $4.2 billion capital construction budget that was stalled since 2017.
With uncharacteristic speed, both chambers of the Legislature passed the change to water law, the capital budget and some $2.7 billion of general obligation bonds with overwhelming majorities and sent all three to Gov. Jay Inslee, who is expected to sign them.
Word of the deal surfaced Thursday morning as legislators briefed a delegation of government, business and academic officials from Spokane. Leaders of both parties in the House and Senate had completed negotiations on a change in water law that addresses a state Supreme Court decision hampering development in some rural and suburban areas.
An agreement on a so-called “Hirst fix,” named after the plaintiff in the lawsuit the court decided last year, had been a requirement by Republicans to allowing a vote on the capital construction budget. A deal struck late Wednesday sets up new restrictions for water rights in some areas but will allow most construction projects to continue.
A bipartisan coalition in the Senate passed the water bill Thursday evening on a 35-14 vote. Its sponsor, Sen. Keven Van De Wege, D-Sequim, described the bill as “by no means perfect – everybody is unhappy with it fairly equally.”
The bill allows development to resume in many parts of the state and provides $300 million over the next 15 years for water improvement projects. Areas with potential water shortages will form special committees to establish rules for new permits.
“Eastern Washington does well because of its lack of density,” said Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, who has been working on a Hirst fix for more than a year. The deal came together Wednesday night, she said, with agreements to limit metering to requirements to pilot projects in two districts and limits on water withdrawals in some watersheds.
That prompted agreement from negotiators representing both parties in both chambers and Gov. Jay Inslee, Warnick said.
“The governor looked us in the eye and said ‘I will sign this legislation,’ ” Warnick said.
The bill was sent quickly to the House, which passed it 66-30.
The first step in realizing the deal that would shake loose the capital construction budget occurred shortly before 1 p.m. Thursday, as the House approved some $2.7 billion in general obligation bonds necessary to pay for part of the capital construction budget. The 94-2 vote easily exceeded the 60 percent required to pass bonds.
The House sent the bond bill to the Senate, which passed it on a vote of 47-2 shortly after passing the “Hirst fix.”
A few minutes later the Senate unanimously passed the capital construction budget, sending it to the House, which passed it 95-1.
“This is a good budget,” House Capital Budget Chairman Steve Tharinger, D-Dungeness, said. “I hope we have not set a precedent to hold future budgets hostage to other issues.”