Capital budget impasse ties up several Mid-Columbia projects

Plans to speed up construction of a new Washington National Guard center in the Horn Rapids area have stalled because state lawmakers can’t resolve an unrelated water rights dispute.

That water rights impasse also has slowed work on upgrading a Highway 395 interchange in south Kennewick, building a science center at the LIGO site, constructing a new academic building at Washington State University’s Tri-Cities campus, providing more irrigation water for area farmers, bringing Kennewick’s water meter reading into the 21st century, among other Tri-City projects.

Washington Senate Republicans opted not to vote on the state’s $4 billion capital budget bill because of a deadlock between the GOP and Democrats on how to deal with a 2016 Washington Supreme Court ruling on water rights.

Here is what happened.

At issue is dealing with a 2016 Washington Supreme Court decision — the so-called Hirst ruling— that blocks landowners from digging new wells without proving they won’t threaten nearby stream levels needed for fish. The ruling has essentially halted construction of homes and businesses in many rural areas.

After six months of talks to find a compromise to help landowners and rural communities without harming fish, both political parties could not reach an agreement when the 2017 session ended July 20 after three 30-day special sessions.

Meanwhile, the GOP Senate caucus said it would not pass a $4 billion capital budget — both sides agreed on actual projects and appropriations — without a permanent solution to the rural-wells problem. Senate Republicans are sticking to that stance, said Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, chairman of the Senate Capital Budget Committee.

“If we’re not holding up the capital budget, there will be no Hirst solution,” he said.

The House Democrats proposed a short-term compromise to put a two-year delay on enforcing the Hirst ruling on well diggers while the two sides work more on a final solution — meaning wells could be dug regardless of the stream implications during those two years. The GOP rejected that offer.

“That just kicks the can down the road. We need a permanent solution,” Honeyford said.

Gov. Jay Inslee said: “At this point, a 24-month delay is the best approach to give the Legislature time to evaluate a permanent fix while giving suffering property owners immediate relief.”

In response, Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, the lead GOP negotiator on the Hirst issue, said, “Access to water is a basic human right, and finding a solution to Hirst that allows families to build on their property with a reliable source of water is not only a necessity — it is a moral obligation for elected officials in this state. … The House offered a proposal to temporarily delay implementation of the Hirst decision, but not only is this legally questionable, it fails to address the real issue – no bank will be willing to lend money on property where no guaranteed source of water is available.”

So far, no apparent decline in local rural construction has occurred because the legislative issue has been up in the air, said Jeff Losey, executive director of the Homebuilders Association of the Tri-Cities. It is too early to speculate on what the impasse’s effects will be on rural construction, he said.

Inslee and legislative leaders voiced hope that a Hirst agreement might be reached later this year, with the governor then calling a special legislative session to pass both a Hirst compromise and a capital budget.

“We’re still waiting to see what the Legislature will do,” said Kennewick City Manager Marie Mosley.

This unresolved issue has a couple potential political blowbacks for Republicans. One is that Republican legislative districts would lose out on construction money as much as the Democratic districts.

Secondly, there is a November special election for a senator to permanently replace the late Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, in the 45th District. Whichever side wins that election will have a 25-24 majority in the Senate. If the Democrats win in the 45th, that would mean control of the House, Senate and governor’s office — and the Senate GOP wouldn’t have the clout to renew any Hirst negotiations.

Still, Republicans have been straightforward about their view of the need for a solution to the wells question before they release the capital budget.

A major sticking point in the final talks was that Democrats wanted tribes or the state Ecology Department to have the power to veto any well-digging project if formal objections are raised, including concerns by environmentalists or more senior water rights owners, which would include the tribes.

“Otherwise, you could put in new wells without a limiting mechanism. … There has to be some accountability,” said Rep. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, one of the Democratic leaders on this topic. Inslee supported this stance.

That was a deal-breaker for Republicans. The GOP proposal was if objections were formally raised to Ecology, the state could cut off any state money to the project, but would not be allowed to veto it. As a sweetener, Republicans offered to increase well-digging permit fees or allocate another $10 million for fish mitigation work.

Here is a rundown of some Mid-Columbia projects stalled without a capital budget:

  • Delays to upgrading the intersection of Highway 395 and Ridgeline Drive serving south Kennewick.
  • The stalled capital budget included $69.5 million for water supply projects in the Yakima and Columbia river basins. The state ecology department said in a written statement that the situation will delay construction and cost-sharing opportunities for water conservation and supply projects.

These include projects to provide Columbia River water to farmers in the Odessa Subarea. And they cover projects to improve water collection and storage in the upper Yakima River basin that will ultimately affect the availability of irrigation water in western Benton County. Projects also include fish passages and habitat improvements for fish along the Yakima River basin.

  • Design work for a 40,000-square-foot center for an Army infantry Stryker company with 180 to 200 people, 16 Strykers, plus support vehicles. The state has already bought 40 acres in the Horn Rapid area for $1.6 million. Although plans and bids are still not tackled, the National Guard expects the project to cost roughly $3.8 million in state capital funds, which are needed to receive another $11.4 million in federal money.

The National Guard had hoped to speed the completion date from 2020 to 2019. But since $300,000 for design work is in the stalled capital budget, that acceleration is gone, and the finish date appears to be headed back to 2020, said Lt. Col. Adam Iwaszuk, facility management officer of the Washington National Guard.

  • The stalled capital budget has $9.7 million that was earmarked for expansion and fix-it work at Richland’s Jefferson Elementary School. However, the school district has more than that stashed away in its own capital project’s fund, so work will begin on schedule on the Jefferson site — with the local fund to be reimbursed when the state capital money finally gets allocated.
  • The stalled budget included $3 million to build labs, classrooms and offices in the middle of the WSU Tri-Cities campus — originally expected to take less than two years to do.
  • A 9,000-square-foot new building to hold classrooms, exhibits and offices for student outreach at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. This is part of the LIGO outreach to schools. The site received 8,000 visitors last year.

“This would increase the number of students to the site,” said Mike Landry, LIGO’s Hanford director.

The building has a preliminary estimated cost of $5.6 million. The state capital budget would have allocated $411,000 to the project, which currently has no target date for construction. LIGO is exploring several sources of revenue for this project.

  • The city of Kennewick was supposed to receive $6 million to upgrade its water-meter-reading system from using workers walking from home to home to instead transmitting all the information electronically. Area public utility districts already tackle this chore electronically. Once given a green light, Mosley expects the upgrade to take several months.
  • The North Franklin School District was to receive a capital fund appropriation to build a new bus center. Details on the costs and timetable were not readily available. The state is supposed to pay for most of that project. Also, the school district already has an older bus parking and maintenance center, which will stay open until the new center is tackled.
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