Democrats apparently won control of the Washington Senate on Tuesday, shifting power in Olympia but not immediately altering talks over reopening rural areas to new residential wells.
Republicans retain enough Senate seats to block borrowing to fund capital projects, the bargaining chip they’ve used to prod Democrats to negotiate a response to the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision, which holds that new wells threaten streams and fish populations.
“We still have some leverage,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake.
The Senate passed Warnick-sponsored legislation this year to overrule the court and allow new wells, but the Democratic-controlled House did not. Some Democrats say they want more protection for stream flows before easing the court’s restrictions on wells.
Democrats will likely control both chambers in January. Democrat Manka Dhingra held a commanding election night lead over Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund to fill a vacant seat in a Seattle suburban Senate district. The seat had been held by Republicans.
If Dhingra’s lead holds, Senate Democrats will have a 25-24 edge and control which bills receive hearings and votes. Passing a bond bill to fund new capital projects, however, requires a super-majority, or 30 votes. That means Senate Republicans are needed to pass it.
Warnick said Wednesday that she received pre-election commitments from Democrats that talks about Hirst will continue. She said she was hopeful lawmakers will come to an agreement by the end of the year.
“I did have assurances we’re going to work on Hirst,” she said. “I want to get the capital budget passed, too, but I really need a Hirst fix for my constituents.”
The Washington Farm Bureau has been among the Hirst decision’s most vocal critics, saying it will prevent farmers from building new family homes and farmworker housing, and damage rural communities.
The organization’s associate director of government affairs, Evan Sheffels, said that he doesn’t expect the election to fundamentally change negotiations.
“People have been working in good faith to reach a middle ground that serves all interests,” he said. “There are still folks from both caucuses who need and want a good Hirst fix.”
Reps. David Taylor and Brian Blake, who co-sponsored a compromise Hirst bill that didn’t pass, agreed that Dhingra’s election won’t affect ongoing talks.
“This particular issue has been talked about and talked about so much. The key negotiators are not going to change,” said Taylor, R-Moxee. “The conversations are happening. What we’ll end up with is anybody’s guess.”
Blake, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said rural wells are “such a minor problem.”
“The big issue is the stream flows, and the big threat to stream flows is climate change,” said Blake, an Aberdeen Democrat. “We’re still talking and trying to find that sweet spot that allows people to build and brings sharper focus on maintaining and enhancing stream flows.”
The Dhingra-Englund race smashed campaign spending records for a legislative race in Washington.
Gov. Jay Inslee congratulated Dhingra from Bonn, Germany, where he was attending a United Nations convention on climate change.
“We’ve had good bipartisan successes in Olympia over the past few years and that will continue,” he said in a written statement. “I also look forward to action on some issues that have stalled too long.” Inslee did not specify the issues he had in mind.