Courtesy Washington Governor’s Office
OLYMPIA — Senate Republicans pressed Washington Gov. Jay Inslee Tuesday to get more active in negotiating legislation to reopen rural parts of the state to well drilling, seizing on a new study that asserts the state risks losing $6.9 billion a year in economic activity.
Republicans said the report, commissioned by the Building Industry Association of Washington, was evidence they are right to refuse to pass a $4 billion capital budget until Democrats agree to blunt the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision.
“Both bills are vital to our state,” according to a letter to Inslee signed by 21 senators. “However, rural families seeking to build a home on their property should take precedence over investment in government buildings. A real Hirst solution must come first.”
The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, ruled last year that individual landowners must prove their new well won’t diminish existing water rights, including stream flows for fish. Dissenting judges said the majority placed an intolerable burden on individuals. The Washington Farm Bureau joined other groups in denouncing the ruling as an assault on rural families, communities and economies.
The Hirst ruling undermined the Department of Ecology’s authority to manage water. Republicans and Democrats have been unable to agree on a program to offset the cumulative impact of new wells.
The Inslee administration has not offered a solution. The governor said in April that responding to the Hirst decision should not distract lawmakers from issues he considered more important.
“A governor is elected to lead the state, and I feel there has been a lack of leadership on this issue,”
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, said Wednesday. “Often I’ve seen a governor step in when legislators can’t reach an agreement, and this governor hasn’t done that.”
Inslee should convene a special session to address the Hirst ruling and pass a capital budget, she said. “He’s spent a good amount of time going around the state talking about the capital budget, and I just need to remind him he has the ability to call us back.”
Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee said in an email that the Governor’s Office has been meeting with legislators. She noted the governor supported a two-year moratorium on implementing the Hirst decision to give landowners time to finish their homes and for legislators to agree on a permanent fix.
“Regardless, there is no justification for linking Hirst to the capital budget and holding up action on one until a resolution is found on the other,” she wrote. “Failure to pass a construction budget also costs our state billions of dollars in lost investments and jobs.”
Warnick said a moratorium is the only proposal she’s heard from the governor’s office. Republicans reject a moratorium, arguing it would imply acceptance of the decision and leave landowners, lenders and counties in no better position to make long-term plans.
The building industry hired HR2 Research and Analytics of Bellevue to assess the potential economic consequences of the Hirst decisions. Besides losses stemming from a shutdown in land sales, well drilling and home building, the firm estimated $37 billion in lost property values.
The Hirst decision stemmed from a lawsuit filed in Whatcom County by the environmental group Futurewise and others. The suit successfully challenged Ecology’s policy of allowing new wells in an area where a river sometimes falls below state-set minimum levels to protect fish.