The Washington Legislature set a record in 2017 for the longest legislative session in the state’s history. In my view, it has to go down as one of the least productive sessions ever.
In odd numbered years, Washington lawmakers are scheduled to be in session for 105 days. This year, three overtime sessions were added to the schedule because members of the House and Senate struggled to reach agreements on critical issues. The special sessions pushed the lawmakers to 193 days at work this calendar year.
Despite those overtime sessions, Washington lawmakers still weren’t able to get all their work done prior to adjourning for good on Thursday. Left unfinished was a compromise addressing the controversial Hirst Decision impacting the water rights of rural property owners. As a result of the House Democrats’ refusal to compromise on a Hirst solution, Republicans blocked a vote on the $4.2 billion capital budget.
“Not much to smile about today,’’ wrote Rep. Vicki Kraft (R-17th District) in a Facebook post Thursday. “Spent all day in the Capitol without anything being accomplished. House Democrats left without even saying goodbye, let alone trying to pass a Hirst bill. I guess they aren’t serious about helping the rural communities after all. Too bad, because of this no Capital Budget bill passed either. Not the way I want to end my first term.’’
Rep. Liz Pike was equally disgusted with the lawmakers’ performance. Pike told ClarkCountyToday.com that the capital budget included a couple of Clark County projects, $1 million to upgrade parking at the Harmony Sports Complex and $250,000 to finish a maintenance facility for the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad. Despite potential funding for those local projects, Republicans like Pike and Kraft stuck to their guns in support of the property rights of rural landowners.
“On July 20th, the session ended without fixing the deeply flawed Hirst decision and without passing the $4.2 billion Capital budget,’’ Pike wrote in her own Facebook post Thursday. “I am sorry to inform there will not be any funding of the previously negotiated and approved community projects this year. I supported this Capital budget and voted to pass it off the house floor around 3 a.m. on July 1. But it ended there, not advancing further.
“Denying water to rural families across WA state is shameful,’’ Pike added. “United Republicans in the Washington State Legislature were not willing to cede our constitutional obligation to manage the water resources that are owned by the PEOPLE of this great state to a special interest group. We were also not willing to accept a 24-month ‘kick-the can-down-the-road’ temporary band-aid approach.
“I suspect that if the Hirst decision was about denying water to municipal water supplies that serve city dwellers, Democrats would have been clamoring to protect their constituents ability to access water for living,’’ Pike wrote. “Why is it that some in our society refuse to value rural people and their rural cultural heritages? Why is it that some in our society continue to assault the property rights of rural landowners? In my capacity as a State Representative, I’ve never been more disappointed than I am today. Session is finally over and one of the most consequential private property rights issue facing landowners has not been resolved.’’
Pike also offered some background on the Hirst Decision.
“The Hirst WA Supreme Court decision has prevented people across our state from digging wells on their private property,’’ Pike wrote. “This shameful and deeply flawed ruling has threatened property values, destroyed dreams and created uncertainty for families and counties. It’s just plain wrong.’’
Senate Bill 5239, sponsored by Sen. Judy Warnick (R-Moses Lake), was passed by the Senate four times, once in each of the four sessions. It was rejected by House Democrats.
“Certainly Republicans view this as a critical property-rights issue and we made it a priority to fight for the families and communities that are negatively impacted,’’ Pike wrote. “Finding a comprehensive solution has been a priority since day one of session – and it continues to be. It’s worth fighting for … It’s a fundamental right that families should be allowed to access water on their own property for their daily lives.’’
Pike pointed out, “On June 30, an agreed-upon, bipartisan amendment to SB 5239 was offered to the House. Had it been allowed a vote, it probably would have passed. Unfortunately, it was blocked again by House Democrats who control the chamber.’’
The Legislature’s failure to agree on a Hirst solution wasn’t the lawmakers’ only failure in 2017, in my opinion. Remember, lawmakers narrowly avoided a government shutdown by passing the Operating Budget prior to the June 30 deadline. That Operating Budget increases the state government’s spending by 27 percent in the next four years, even though Washington’s economy is producing $3 billion in new revenue this year.
“The bottom line is if we would’ve prioritized education by funding it first in the budget we could have funded it within existing revenues,’’ Kraft said at the time. “Then like any household budget it comes down to living within our means, and not constantly taking money out of our neighbors’ pockets that isn’t ours to spend. My motto has been: fiscal responsibility and accountability are top priorities for our citizens.’’
But, it’s apparent now that such frivolous things as fiscal responsibility and accountability, and the property rights of rural landowners, aren’t top priorities for enough of Washington’s lawmakers.