Lawmakers ended the longest legislative session in state history Thursday without resolving a water rights dispute or passing a capital budget to fund school construction, affordable housing, and a slew of community projects throughout Washington.
Most legislators departed the Capitol by dinnertime and leaders formally adjourned before 8 p.m., concluding a marathon that lasted 105 days of regular session and three month-long extra sessions.
Along the way, lawmakers barely averted a partial government shutdown, enacted a huge increase in the state property tax to fund schools, and approved one of the nation’s most generous paid leave programs and one of its toughest distracted driving laws.
But their inability to settle on a response to the Hirst decision from the state Supreme Court last fall leaves thousands of rural property owners wondering if they’ll be able to build a home and drill a well.
That ruling said counties must determine whether there’s enough water available for a new well. Each county must come up with its own system for predicting the impact on water flowing to nearby streams or available to existing wells.
Leaders of the Republican-led Senate and Democrat-controlled House declared an impasse in negotiations on possible fixes Wednesday. There were no breakthroughs Thursday though Democrats pushed a last-ditch plan for a 24-month delay in rules that Republicans rejected as inadequate.
As a result, a proposed $4.2 billion capital construction budget would not be acted on because all along Senate Republicans have refused to vote on this spending until there was an agreement on Hirst.
“This was the only way we could really address this issue,” Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, said of the linkage. “This problem was created by the state Supreme Court when it pulled the rug out from under thousands of people in our state who now may not be able to develop their property.”
Rep. John Koster, R-Arlington, said the problem demanded a permanent solution not a temporary one.
“It’s frustrating but this is a forever decision,” he said. “It has to be done properly. No fix is better than a bad fix.”
Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, was discouraged by the outcome.
“I’m disappointed in the Senate Republicans for holding up all these construction projects over the Hirst decision,” he said.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said the “Republican intransigence” leaves a “sour note” at the end of a year filled with bipartisan achievements. He cited accomplishments such as boosting public school funding, improving mental health treatment services, expanding early education opportunities and launching a paid family leave program.
“The Legislature got a lot done this year,” he said at a Thursday evening news conference. “But they did not add to those successes tonight, unfortunately.
“This ‘my way or the highway’ attitude did prevent the construction of schools … it prevented the construction of colleges that everyone agreed to and it prevented people from being able to drill wells for the next two years,” he said.
Lawmakers said they’ll keep talking about Hirst. Inslee said he’ll call them back for another special session if they come up with an accord that ensures passage of the capital budget.
A version of this story was originally published in the Everett Herald.