Lawmakers left Olympia July 20 with unfinished business. The Legislature was unable to reach agreement on how to respond to the state Supreme Court’s “Hirst” decision. As a result of the impasse, lawmakers did not adopt a capital budget. Briefly, the issues can be summarized this way.
The Hirst decision, handed down by the court one year ago, October 6, 2016, concerns water rights, particularly use of private wells. The court’s ruling held that counties planning under the Growth Management Act must certify that new wells will not impair certain rivers and streams or existing senior water rights (rights to withdraw water awarded by state government). Previously, “household” wells were “permit exempt” because of the small amounts of water they used. Many rural counties cannot afford to do the analysis now required to certify new wells. The practical effect of the ruling, then, has been to put a halt on new residential construction in rural areas.
Republicans in the state Senate proposed and passed legislation designed to restore water rights certainty, essentially returning to the law before Hirst. House leaders proposed a temporary suspension of Hirst through 2018. Despite lengthy discussions between leaders in both chambers, they could not reach agreement.
Senate leaders, saying a lasting resolution of the uncertainty was of urgent importance to economically struggling rural communities, refused to vote on a largely agreed-upon $4 billion two-year capital construction budget. The budget included $1 billion for school construction and hundreds of other projects, including mental health facilities and parks. Last week, because there was no capital budget, the state began laying off employees whose jobs depended on funding from the construction budget.
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