OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee outlined his legislative priorities Thursday for the last weeks of the session, a list that doesn’t include responding to the state Supreme Court decision that has closed rural Washington to new domestic wells.
“I think it would be most helpful in many, many places to find some solution to it, but it is not as important as funding the McCleary decision,” said Inslee, referring to the court’s order to spend more on education.
Senate Republicans say they want to address this year both McLeary and the Hirst decision. The 6-3 ruling in October will require individual property owners to prove their well won’t draw water from existing uses. Dissenting justices said the decision puts a massive and likely insurmountable burden on people applying for a building permit.
The Washington Farm Bureau has been among the Hirst decision’s leading critics, saying it will stop families from building homes for the next generation of farmers. Tribes and environmental groups say the decision recognizes that new wells could draw down fish-supporting rivers that already have low flows at times.
The GOP-led Senate has passed a bill to nullify Hirst. The Democratic-controlled House has not advanced legislation, though Democrats have proposed in two similar bills to create watershed-level committees to approve projects to keep new wells from usurping other uses of water.
“I think the House, from what I know of their proposal, has a more stable system … that I think would reduce litigation,” Inslee said, speaking to reporters. “I’ll have more to say as these bills progress.”
The sponsor of the Senate bill, Moses Lake Republican Judy Warnick, said she was disappointed that the House hasn’t offered a bill and that Inslee hasn’t made passing one this year a priority.
“Obviously, I disagree with his assessment on this. We do need to deal with it,” she said. “It’s absolutely a slap in the face of rural Washington.”
Warnick said she’s ready to talk with House Democrats and come to an agreement.
“My leadership has asked me to negotiate with them,” she said. “But I don’t know what I would be negotiating with. I don’t want to negotiate against myself.”
House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said last week he hopes the chamber can produce a Hirst bill, though no legislation had enough support to move from his committee.
Inslee said education funding was the top issue, but he volunteered other priorities. “There are a handful of other bills that I’m also tracking, and I’m hoping that will be delivered to my desk,” he said.
The list, which Inslee said was not exhaustive, included bills to help the homeless, and crack down on distracted driving and human trafficking.
Inslee placed an especially high priority on legislation to bring state driver’s licenses into compliance with the federal REAL ID Act. “This bill is very important to pass this session. They need to reach that agreement and get that bill to my desk this session,” he said
Asked whether a Hirst bill was must-pass legislation, Inslee returned to education funding.
“They’ve got to focus on that. We can’t let any other issues intrude on their ability to get the first job done, which is the McCleary decision. That’s Hirst or anything else,” he said.
In a follow-up question, Inslee was asked whether lawmakers can handle more than one issue at a time.
“Well, they can obviously. What I’m saying is, they ought to focus on McCleary first,” he said. “We’ve got Hirst, we’ve got all kinds of bills, and we need to get down to business on McCleary first. And I think it’s a mistake to say, ‘Well, let’s pass all these bills, and we’ll get around to McCleary in June.’ It’s just not acceptable.”
As of Thursday, the Senate had passed 300 bills this session, and the House had passed 375 bills. Inslee has signed three bills, including one related to education funding.