OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers said Wednesday they are at an impasse on negotiations on a water rights bill, meaning that the Legislature is likely to adjourn its triple overtime session without a vote on a two-year $4 billion capital budget that pays for construction projects across the state.
Legislative leaders said that they planned to adjourn Thursday, the last day of the most recent special session, though some negotiators would continue their work next week on the issue. Gov. Jay Inslee has already said he wouldn’t call the Legislature back for a fourth consecutive special session and would only call lawmakers back to the Capitol if they reached a deal that would allow a vote on the capital budget.
Lawmakers have been in session for more than 190 days this year on what was scheduled to be a 105-day session, first because of a delay on approving a state operating budget to avert a partial government shutdown, then by a dispute over legislation aimed at overturning a recent state Supreme Court known as the Hirst decision. That ruling effectively limited the use of new domestic wells in certain rural areas when it harms senior water rights.
Democrats argued that new money for local water and sewer projects, school construction, mental health facilities and other construction across the state remains in limbo, and state employees who are currently being paid by existing agency funds ultimately face layoffs without a new budget enacted.
“We lose an opportunity to create jobs in every corner of the state with a capital budget that’s already been agreed to by all four caucuses,” Democratic House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said.
House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen said that it was fair to tie the capital budget to the water dispute.
“Is it fair for government to be able to build anything they want, using taxpayer dollars, but the people who paid those taxes — to pay for those schools and hospitals and all the great things we’ve got in the capital budget — is it fair for government to be able to build that stuff in the same neighborhoods that the citizens who live there can’t provide housing for their own family?” he asked.
In October, the state Supreme Court ruled that Whatcom County failed to protect water resources by allowing new wells to reduce flow in streams for fish and other uses. The court said counties must ensure, independently of the state, that water is physically and legally available before they issue building permits in certain areas.
In the wake of that ruling, some counties temporarily halted certain rural development, while others changed criteria for obtaining building permits.
Frustrated property owners told lawmakers they spent thousands of dollars to prepare building lots only to discover they now can’t get a building permit. County officials say they don’t have the resources to do hydrological studies that would be required under the ruling.
Several tribes across the state have urged Inslee to oppose efforts to overturn the court decision and reject proposals that don’t protect tribal treaty rights. They say the ruling correctly requires local governments to plan ahead so new water withdrawals don’t harm those with senior water rights, including tribes, municipalities and farmers.
Lawmakers have proposed various bills in response, and negotiations were ongoing until they stalled Wednesday.
Inslee on Wednesday supported House Democrats latest offer that would allow property owners to obtain building permits in certain areas for 24 months. It would also create a legislative task force to work on long-term solutions.
“At this point, a 24-month delay is the best approach to give the legislature time to evaluate a permanent fix while giving suffering property owners immediate relief,” Inslee said in a written statement.
But at a press conference Wednesday afternoon, House and Senate Republicans argued that that there are concerns around the permitting process and bank loans without a permanent fix now.
“If there’s a fix to be found, it needs to be found right now, before anyone else gets caught in the trap of building under circumstances that might not be perfect,” said Republican Sen. Judy Warnick.