Here’s something you don’t read very often: The state Legislature acted quickly and appropriately on important legislation just days into the current legislative session.
That’s not a misprint. Yes, the Legislature more commonly leaves the disposition of crucial matters to the very last second or, in the case of extended sessions, well beyond.
But the fates of two totally unrelated issues that got tangled up in politics — fallout from the so-called “Hirst decision” by the state Supreme Court, and passage of the state’s 2017-19 capital budget — were settled with merciful swiftness last week in Olympia.
Both actions are vital to eastern Washington and by extension the Methow Valley. Resolving, at least in part, the confusion and consternation caused by the Hirst decision will unshackle rural development in many areas. And the capital budget includes local projects that are meaningful in our communities.
To briefly recap, in its Hirst decision the Supreme Court restricted new wells that might affect stream flows, and instructed counties to make their own determinations of water availability, rather than relying on the state Department of Ecology as they had in the past. In many counties (including Okanogan), the directive effectively brought a halt to new building permits in rural areas.
The capital budget, which supports building and infrastructure projects throughout the state, had absolutely nothing to do with that. But Senate Republicans — and they must be held accountable, because they controlled the Senate at the time — refused to act on the capital budget until the Hirst decision was addressed. That act of political gamesmanship delayed a lot projects all over Washington, in many cases into next year.
With control of the Senate in the Democrats’ hands as the new session started, its was regarded as likely that some agreements would be reached.
The Hirst bill (SB 6091) is accepted by both parties as a compromise — which didn’t used to be a dirty word in politics — that provides immediate relief for counties. It allows property owners to drill residential wells, while local planners come up with longer-term solutions. Ecology is back in the picture as a source of water availability information for the counties.
The capital budget provides $4.2 billion for approved projects, including more than $1 billion for public schools, backed by state general obligation bonds. But some projects slated for this year will now have to wait until next year to get underway.
It was a productive start to the Legislature’s off-year session, which is usually shorter than the regular biennial session. Let’s hope it sets a tone for the rest of the legislators’ work.
If the Hirst and capital budget actions are praiseworthy, the Legislature’s behavior continues to be reprehensible in another area of lasting importance to Washington residents: public records disclosure. In an ongoing legal fight over public access to information, the Legislature is continuing to waste taxpayer money to defend the indefensible.
For years, through convoluted actions supported by pretzel logic, legislators have exempted themselves from public records requirements that most other elected officials in the state must abide by. That exemption allowed lawmakers and legislative officials to withhold work calendars, emails and other documents.
Last year, 10 news organizations, including The Seattle Times, The Associated Press and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents weekly newspapers like this one, joined forces to challenge the Legislature’s public-records exemption.
Last week, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled that legislators had violated Washington’s Public Records Act. This week, it was announced that the legislators have decided to appeal that decision to the state Supreme Court.
The legislators have hired private attorneys, paid for with taxpayer dollars, to defend and extend the case. The tab so far is about $56,000, the Seattle Times reported.
As reported in the Times, Judge Chris Lanese said that the state law, which Washingtonians overwhelmingly approved in a statewide initiative vote, “literally says that representatives and senators and their offices are agencies under the Public Records Act … none of the arguments advanced by the defendants here can escape the fact that the plain and unambiguous language of the statute literally has a definitional chain that goes from agencies to state agencies to state offices to state legislative offices.”
In other words, legislators, you’re not exempt. Stop fighting the public’s will and the public’s interests and accept the judge’s decision. Dragging it out is wasteful and disgraceful.