Where do we go from here to provide a Hirst fix to Washington families?

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By Madilynne Clark

“Where do we go from here?” seems to be the question at the top of everyone’s minds, after the failure of the Legislature to find a solution to the problems caused by the Hirst decision. The third special legislative session concluded unceremoniously on July 20 and our elected officials left Olympia without a capital budget and without a Hirst fix.

Madilynne Clark,  Washington Policy Center
Madilynne Clark,
Washington Policy Center

Stemming from a Washington state Supreme Court decision in October 2016, the Hirst decision has effectively stopped rural development throughout Washington. Many landowners, construction workers and rural communities have looked to the Legislature to provide a “Hirst fix” Washington state citizens affected by this ruling, that is described by Justice Stephens in the dissenting opinion as, “This is not a policy decision we (the court) are at liberty to make.”

Hoping to provide a much needed and requested Hirst fix to Washington state families, Senate leadership promised the capital budget would not be passed unless a fair compromise was reached on Hirst between the two chambers and the governor. The capital budget is a $4.2 billion dollar funding source passed every biennium and is part of the normal state budgeting process. The capital budget would fund major infrastructure investments and projects in communities throughout Washington like school construction, housing and water projects. However, a compromise was never reached for Hirst even after three special sessions.

Rumors abound on what the next few months have in store for these issues. The possibilities boil down to three main options, and it is unclear which the Legislature and the governor will choose.

No. 1. The governor’s office will recall the House and Senate to provide a capital budget and Hirst solution. If the governor were to call another special session this would make the fourth special session he has called this year, and would be for a 30-day period.

However, the governor’s repeated minimization of the impacts of Hirst, as just a water issue, makes it unlikely that he will place as much emphasis on the need for a permanent solution. Instead, it is more likely he will pressure Republicans that this “water issue” can be dealt with by postponing the ruling for a couple years in exchange for passing the capital budget.

No. 2. Leadership from both the House and Senate could call a special session. However, for legislators to call a special session, the motion must be supported by two-thirds of each chamber. Supporters of this theory believe leadership will only request a special session if an agreement is close to being reached. The House and Senate would likely only call the session for a short period of time to pass a solution to Hirst and adopt the capital budget.

No. 3. No special session is called and decisions on Hirst and the capital budget are postponed until the 2018 legislative session, which is only five months away. This may be attractive to some Democrats who hope the special election in the 45th District Senate race will give them a majority in that chamber. However, the capital budget requires a 60 percent vote to pass the bonds. Any capital budget would require some Republican support. Additionally, some agencies rely on funding from the capital budget for operational expenses, so state government positions would be unfunded for at least a quarter of the new biennium.

As we wait for a decision, both rural and urban Washingtonians need to move past the partisan rhetoric designed to minimize the impact of Hirst and realize this is more than a water issue. The consequences of Hirst will impact funding for the very services in rural communities pushed for in the two-year capital budget, because many of these rural services are funded through property taxes.

As property values decline due to lack of water and development slows in rural communities, the services funded by property taxes are shifted to a smaller tax base. Washington’s rural communities, already lagging behind since the recession, will struggle to fund basic community services like schools, police, fire, libraries and parks. Widening the gap between rural and urban Washington is more than a water issue, it is about homes and families.

About Madilynne Clark:

Madilynne Clark is the agriculture policy research director at Washington Policy Center.