Connelly: Dems announce accord on $4B state capital budget

Negotiators in a never-ending session of the Washington Legislature finally agreed Tuesday on a $4 billion capital budget, according to announcements flowing from Democrats. The budget pays for construction at schools, college campuses, parks and environmental projects around the state.

State Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, announces capital budget agreement — “This is great news” — but negotiations continue over a water rights dispute. The Legislature is at the end of its third special session. It has been meeting since January. (Joshua Trujillo, seattlepi.com)

Republicans remain silent. They have insisted on rural water rights legislation as a price for passing the two-year capital construction budget.

Time is of the essence. Thursday marks the end of the Legislature’s third special session.

The water rights impasse, and Republican anger at Gov. Jay Inslee for vetoing a business tax break, has extended a session that began in January nearly three weeks into July. The state’s biennial $43.27 billion operating budget was approved and signed on June 30.

“On Tuesday afternoon, Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate reached agreement on a full capital budget: This is great news for job creation, mental health improvements, environmental protection and investment in communities across our state,” State Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said in a statement.

But Senate Republicans’ Twitter account still lead with a July 13 statement saying the Governor and Democratic-controlled House “had” to act on the water rights dispute.

“The construction budget would build $1 billion in new public schools and create tens of thousands of jobs from Aberdeen to Spokane,” said Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, chair of the House Capital Budget Committee.

“Those projects and jobs are especially important to families in timber and farm country, which doesn’t have the infrastructure and white-hot economy of the Seattle-Everett-Tacoma core.”

The Democrats were, however, a little vague on how the water rights dispute has been or will be resolved.

The Republicans, who run the Senate, have linked the state’s 2017-19 capital budget to a change in water law that addresses the State Supreme Court‘s recent Hirst decision.

Under the decision, a divided court ruled that counties must obey the Growth Management Act, making independent decisions over whether sufficient water is available as a prelude to approving building projects that require a new well.

The state’s 39 counties had relied on Department of Ecology evaluations on whether water was available. The system made well permits easier to secure.

Republicans and rural landowners have complained that they can’t build, with contractors arguing that the ruling is curtailing development.  A pair of Democratic constituencies — tribes and environmentalists — have countered that any solution must deal with the cumulative impact of residential wells.

It’s the seeds of a technical impasse, one which Republicans have milked to argue that Democrats don’t care about rural areas of the state.

Democrats were going after Republicans even while announcing a capital budget accord. The water rights battle, clearly, is not over. Said House Majority Leader Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington:

“I understand the importance of addressing the water issue.  Even though it affects a relatively small number of property owners, lawmakers should adopt a long term fix.  But that shouldn’t come at the expense of critical school investments for 1.1 million kids and tens of thousands of construction jobs all across the state.”

The Democrats may have announced an agreement, but jawboning in the state capitol goes on.