Editorial: Lack of capital budget, deal on wells a poor end

By The Herald Editorial Board

“Whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting over.”

Although Mark Twain is often credited with that observation, there’s no evidence the American humorist and author ever said or wrote those words.

There’s ample evidence, however that the state Legislature proved the second part of the quote last week, driving some state residents to heed the advice of the first part.

For the first time ever, at least in recent memory, the state Legislature failed to adopt a capital budget, the spending plan that this year totaled $4 billion in construction money for schools, colleges, community and youth centers, parks, environmental restoration and cleanup and other projects throughout the state.

While the capital budget is typically a bipartisan slam-dunk — the House passed it earlier this month on a 92-1 vote — the Senate’s Republican majority held out on its adoption until it could get legislation passed that would address a state Supreme Court decision affecting the rights of some property owners in rural areas to drill wells and get building permits.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 Hirst decision ruled that Whatcom County’s approval of new wells that reduced the flow of water in streams for salmon and other needs wasn’t protecting water resources and the interests of existing water rights holders.

The court decision put the responsibility on counties, rather than the state Department of Ecology, to determine the adequate availability of water before issuing building permits. That led some counties to halt development in rural areas and prevent some private property owners from building on their land.

Despite last-minute negotiations on Thursday, lawmakers were unable to strike a deal on the water right’s case, which meant no vote in the Senate on the capital budget. A legislative year that spanned the 103-day regular session and three consecutive 30-day sessions — a record — closed without action on either.

The Republicans’ desire to protect the rights of private property owners is justified, but so is the concern that many Democrats expressed in protecting existing water rights held by municipalities, tribes and farmers and the need to assure adequate stream flows to protect salmon runs.

The best route out of this desert impasse would have been to accept the suggestion of Democrats and Gov. Jay Inslee to essentially lift the Hirst decision for two years, allowing time to negotiate a permanent fix. But Republican’s balked, concerned that without a permanent deal now, Hirst would never be addressed.

That’s not a warranted fear. The court’s decision is less than a year old, and even up to the last day of the session there were amendments that were seriously considered by both sides. Agreements like this take time, as evidenced by the Legislature’s own 10-year path to incrementally address the education funding issues in the McCleary case.

The other problem with Republicans linking the capital budget to resolution of the court case is that it could set a precedent for either party to do the same with any other contentious issue in the future and hold hostage the capital budget or even the operating budget — once again risking a government shutdown.

In the short-term, the result means no relief for rural property owners seeking water and the go-ahead to build on their property and, at the very least, a delay of construction projects that schools and communities were counting on.

The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield outlined a number of those projects in Snohomish County where funding is at least delayed, complicating if not jeopardizing some projects. Among the projects included are $27 million for schools in Lake Stevens, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and Edmonds; $37.8 million for a new science building at Edmonds Community College; $10 million of North Sound Behavioral Health, including $5 million for remodeling at Denney Juvenile Justice Center; $3.1 million for the Lake Stevens Civic Center; $2.76 million of Housing Hope’s HopeWorks Station in Everett; $2.1 million for Cocoon House’s Colby Avenue Youth Center; and $1 million for Marysville’s Ebey Waterfront Trail.

Even though the session is over and lawmakers have headed home, talks are expected and should continue on a deal. Gov. Inslee on Thursday night said he would call lawmakers back to Olympia once an agreement is struck.

After a long and arduous session — one that produced some major bipartisan breakthroughs on funding for education, mental health, paid family leave and more — lawmakers’ failure to reach a deal on Hirst and pass the capital budget is deeply disappointing and leaves us thirsting for leadership.

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