Editorial: Cut capital budget’s tie to water rights dispute

By The Herald Editorial Board

The Legislature’s $43.7 billion two-year budget — which took negotiations within hours of a partial state government shutdown — is signed, but some lawmakers haven’t had quite enough brinkmanship for the year.

Now the state’s $4 billion capital budget, which provides the funding for construction of public schools, colleges, universities, community and youth facilities, parks, environmental projects and more, is being held up by the Republican-controlled Senate until lawmakers can resolve a disagreement over water rights for private development.

Local projects at risk of losing funding in the two-year capital budget include $37.8 million for a new Science, Engineering and Technology building at Edmonds Community College; a pocket park in Arlington; restoration work for the Japanese Gulch Creek in Mukilte; a new civic center in Lake Stevens; a new community and senior center on Edmonds’ waterfront; and funding for expansion of Cocoon House’s services for homeless youth and more.

The capital budget also is slated to fund up to $80 million for the state’s Wildlife and Recreation grant program, which provides matching funds for property acquisition and development of state, county and city parks, protects wildlife habitat and preserves working family farms and forestlands.

In passing the operating budget’s resolution of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary mandate, the Legislature added $1.8 billion in spending for basic education, including funding to hire and retain teachers. But it’s the capital budget’s $1 billion in proposed spending for K-12 school construction that will provide the additional space needed for smaller classroom sizes, particularly in K-3 classrooms.

Both House and Senate have had capital budgets ready for adoption since April — and lawmakers in the House, frustrated with this year’s protracted sessions, passed their capital budget on a 92-1 vote early Saturday morning, just hours after Gov. Jay Inslee inked the operating budget.

But Republican leaders in the Senate have insisted on holding off action on the capital budget until the Legislature resolves a dispute over yet another state Supreme Court court case, what’s referred to as the Hirst decision.

A warning: For an issue that involves water, this gets a little dry.

The Hirst decision, issued last fall on a 6-3 vote, changed the rules for drilling wells for private development. Until the ruling, counties could rely on the state Department of Ecology to determine whether there was enough water for new wells, typically giving a pass to wells that weren’t likely to use a lot of water.

Following the ruling, as explained by The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield, each county must come up with its own procedures for determining a well’s impact on water flowing to nearby streams or available to existing wells. Snohomish County announced its response to Hirst in January and offers a webpage with detailed information.

Supporters of the Supreme Court decision, including environmentalists and tribes, say the change is necessary to ensure the rights to quantity and quality of water already held by senior rights holders and the tribes. Those opposed, including the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties and other industry groups, say the decision has already imposed a development moratorium by forcing developers to study and prove a well won’t affect instream flows, the water going to streams.

Senate Republicans, seeking to return things to how they were before the Hirst decision, have passed legislation. Lawmakers in the House considered bills but haven’t found one acceptable to a majority.

Returning the process to how things were before Hirst ignores the concerns of tribes and environmental groups looking to protect water resources and salmon habitat and risks another legal challenge. But some resolution is necessary that allows an easier path to well permits for private development.

With about two weeks remaining in the third and current special session, the options for the Legislature are limited. If it can’t find a compromise before the end of the session, lawmakers should vote to adjourn, allow key players to continue to hammer out a deal and have the governor call another, hopefully brief, special session to pass it.

What the Senate shouldn’t do is hold up the capital budget any longer. Projects important to communities throughout the state — and tied to 7,500 jobs in construction, engineering and natural resource rehabilitation — are being needlessly delayed.

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