Mercy, that was difficult: Last night lawmakers finally reached a deal to fix the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision, a ruling which strangled building in rural areas and held back their economies. Now, families stuck in court-appointed purgatory can restart building projects.
While it wasn’t the bill Republicans would have written on their own, it did represent a triumph for GOP legislators. A carryover issue from last year, Republicans stood their ground, stuck together, and never wavered in their strategy. The party used its leverage – holding up the capital budget (which requires 60% approval to sell bonds, so Republican votes were needed) until Democrats would strike a deal.
Result of long negotiations
The final bill passed 35-14 in the Senate (with two Republicans and maverick Democrat Sen. Tim Sheldon voting no) and 66-30 in the House (six Republican no votes). The bill reached the chambers after intense negotiations since the new legislative session kicked off last week.
Gov. Jay Inslee signaled he will sign the measure. The public announcement by Inslee was viewed as necessary by the GOP after the governor vetoed a B&O tax incentive for manufacturers last year. Republicans and Democrats had negotiated the incentive as part of a budget deal. Inslee insisted his veto didn’t violate the deal because, while his party’s legislative leaders agreed to it, he had not. Some Republicans privately said the incident showed Inslee can’t be trusted.
Different rules for different watersheds
Under the new law, homeowners seeking to build with a well will pay a $500 fee, significantly reduced from earlier drafts. Existing wells will be grandfathered in.
It sets up $300 million in spending for mitigation projects over 15 years, and the state Dept. of Ecology will again be able to sign off on water availability, as was the case before the Hirst decision. Homeowners will be able to use at least 950 gallons a day, and up to 3,000 gallons in some watersheds.
The law “will grant rural property owners the same privileges as urban dwellers,” Rep. Vince Buys (R-Lynden) said. “Once this bill goes into effect, if you own land; if you have a well, you can start building tomorrow.”
It wasn’t all smiles in the Republican camp, though. Buys and fellow negotiator Rep. David Taylor (R-Moxee) expressed worries about the bureaucratic local boards the law requires and if the law is a first step toward metering statewide. “Time will tell,” Taylor said.
Dissenting Democrats cite tribes
The legislative Democrats most aligned with tribes and environmental groups panned the bill. Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle) said the bill continues a “long line” of state actions that ignore tribal fish rights.
Some sounded like they wanted no “fix” at all. “I think a better solution would have been to figure out…how to administer the Hirst decision,” Rep. Derek Stanford (D-Bothell) said. He predicted, “I think there will be a lot of litigation in the meantime that may well derail a lot of this.”
Rep. David Sawyer (D-Parkland) said the state was passing water law for “water that doesn’t belong to us.” He told the House he felt he should warn homeowners who think their well water allocation is safe: “Just because the state says you have a water right doesn’t actually give you a water right. We don’t control the water, entirely.”
Republican unity on bill positive sign
With Republicans now the minority party in both chambers, observers are watching for signs of caucus disunity or horse-trading. The Hirst issue showed a united front, despite withering Democratic criticisms over linking Hirst to the capital budget. Republicans had a plan and they stuck to it.
With Hirst settled, lawmakers quickly passed the $4.2 billion construction budget.