Who could’ve guessed that a state Supreme Court ruling that wasn’t about education would keep lawmakers at work deep into July. Now it’s the $4 billion capital budget caught in a legislative impasse.
The case is Hirst v. Whatcom County, and in a technical ruling issued in October, the court said counties could no longer rely on state Department of Ecology assessments for water availability when signing off on building permits. They must conduct their own analyses, the court said. Most counties don’t have the resources, so they stopped issuing the permits landowners need to drill wells.
Efforts to change the law to account for the Hirst ruling failed before the Legislature adjourned its third overtime session last week. Those who purchased property under the old rules now face the prospect of not being able to build. The ruling also impacts builders, lenders and county tax collections.
The Senate Majority Coalition has decided to draw a line in the sand, saying it won’t vote on the capital construction budget unless lawmakers agree to a Hirst fix.
Among the projects hanging in the balance: Public school construction to help accommodate smaller class sizes, $1.4 billion; Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program projects, $80 million; a science center at Eastern Washington University, $60 million; Spokane Community College Main Building renovation, $25 million; Eastern State Hospital improvements, $6.9 million.
An overwhelming majority of lawmakers want to see these projects and others go forward, but Senate Republicans have a point: The Legislature needs to solve this problem now, because it will be too easy for urban-centric lawmakers to ignore it in the future.
Legislators can’t say they weren’t warned. Though Justice Barbara Madsen joined the majority opinion in Hirst, she pointed out the possible unintended consequence for rural landowners. “This is not a burden to be shifted onto individual permit applicants,” she wrote in a concurrence.
But that’s precisely what will happen if lawmakers fail to act.
We’ve supported SB 5239, which would return the issue to its pre-Hirst days. Counties could rely on the DOE’s analyses in allowing small permit-exempt wells, which constitute about 1 percent of all groundwater use. The DOE considers fish and their habitat in devising its in-stream rules.
The House didn’t vote on that bill and didn’t pass one of their own. House Democrats have offered a 24-month reprieve under which landowners could drill wells while lawmakers worked on a permanent solution. But the corrosive effects of uncertainty would still affect rural development. Plus, the Legislature has demonstrated many times that delay turns into distraction or indifference.
The governor has said he would call a special session if lawmakers reached a Hirst deal, which would free the capital budget. Lawmakers should keep working on a compromise while the issue has their undivided attention.
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