OLYMPIA — They’ve been laid off, steered into a different job or had their work hours reduced.
They are the 52 state employees directly affected, so far, by a political stalemate that’s prevented passage of a new two-year $4.2 billion dollar capital budget until deep disagreement on water rights policy is resolved.
Each worker’s salary was tied to the construction budget that expired June 30. Absent a new spending plan, funding for their jobs no longer exists. They had been working in agencies like state parks and the Department of Enterprise Services, as well as The Evergreen State College and Washington State Historical Society.
When Gov. Jay Inslee proposed his supplemental budget for 2018 earlier this month, he pressed lawmakers to settle their differences and enact a new capital budget in the first week of the legislative session.
“This is not acceptable to the people of the state of Washington,” he said. “We’ve already had to lay off 52 state workers (who) in this holiday season are unemployed because of the hijinks going on here in the Legislature.”
Since July 1, which is the start of the fiscal year, 37 permanent employees and 15 non-permanent workers have been laid off, according to information compiled by the Office of Financial Management.
Four workers had their hours reduced while seven who received layoff notices were able to land jobs elsewhere in state government.
State parks lost 15 people involved in construction and maintenance and other tasks associated with planned improvements at different facilities.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife had to let 10 people go who had been working on a comprehensive flood control study for the Chehalis Basin. A decade ago, a huge winter storm sent the Chehalis River spilling over its banks and onto I-5 in Lewis County, forcing closure of the highway for several days.
These workers were looking at the fish and amphibians in the streams and identifying potential impacts on them if dams or other water storage facilities are put in place, said Joe Stohr, the agency’s deputy director. They were non-permanent, and funding for their contracts from the last budget ended Sept. 30.
“If we had a capital budget we would have kept them on because there was more work for them,” he said.
Another hard hit agency is the Department of Enterprise Services where 18 people in the Engineering and Architectural Services program have been let go, according to spokeswoman Linda Kent.
This division is responsible for the management and contract administration of public works projects throughout the state. Its staff include professional engineers, architects, construction managers, contract managers, management analysts and administrative support.
If there is no capital budget by the end of March, as many as 300 more employees, including batches from the University of Washington and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, could be out of work, the Office of Financial Management reports.
Lawmakers did not act because they did not settle on a response to the Supreme Court’s Hirst decision that’s left rural property owners wondering if they’ll be able to build a home and drill a well.
That ruling said counties must determine whether there’s enough water available for a new well before issuing a permit to drill. Each county must come up with its own system for predicting the impact on water flowing to nearby streams or available to existing wells. Until the decision, counties relied on the state for information on available supplies.
During the session, the Republican-led Senate refused to vote on the capital budget without a Hirst fix. Although Democrats now hold majorities in both the House and Senate, they need votes of some Republicans to pass the capital budget bond bill. Republicans aren’t planning to provide their votes.
“It is very frustrating. These kinds of decisions have consequences that are real and not just ethereal and something that is political,” said Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, who serves on the House Capital Budget Committee. “These are people’s jobs and lives. I am hoping for a very quick resolution at the beginning of the year.”
Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, another committee member, said it was difficult to not have the “thoughtful, sustainable” spending plan crafted in the House passed. Figuring out the water rights policy is vital to the future of rural communities throughout the state, she said.
“It is a difficult situation. For the people impacted, I’m deeply sorry for what it has meant for them personally,” she said.
“Without a fix, the consequences of the Hirst decision will be impacting rural communities” long after buildings constructed with funds in the budget have completed their life-cycle and been bulldozed, she said. “We need to govern for all of Washington.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @dospueblos.