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Legislature passes water rights bill, capital budget

Lawmakers have cleared the way for hundreds of long-delayed school and construction projects to move forward. They hammered out a major breakthrough on a budget that was holding up more than $4 billion worth of projects. (Photo: KOMO News)

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Lawmakers have cleared the way for hundreds of long-delayed school and construction projects to move forward. They hammered out a major breakthrough on a budget that was holding up more than $4 billion worth of projects.

The sticking point was a ban on drilling new wells for rural housing known as the Hirst decision. The votes on Thursday night solve that water rights fight, and free-up those investment dollars.

“This legislation is by no means perfect but it did get us to where everybody is unhappy with it fairly equally," said Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim.

Deep dissatisfaction lingers, even though both the state Senate and House of Representatives have passed the Hirst bill.

“I'm extremely discouraged,” said Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip. “I have to vote no."

Rural development was on hold without a resolution, but the Hirst legislation allows limited drilling of new wells while mitigation plans are worked out. Several amendments were proposed - including better oversight of $300 million for projects to improve stream flows - but all were shot down.

Some lawmakers fear the compromises go to far and endanger fish habitat and tribal treaty rights. However, the deal also brings relief to rural communities.

“This bill provides a path forward to the people that just want to build a home on their few acres," said Sen. Judy Warnick, the Republican Caucus vice chair.

Governor Jay Inslee applauded the vote and said he will sign this and the capital budget measure "in short order."

The $4 billion capital budget received overwhelming approval despite being held-up for months over the water rights issue.

The budget includes more than a billion dollars for school construction - as well as money for mental health facilities and low-income housing projects. The capital budget is long past due, which led to construction delays, layoffs and also jeopardized access to federal dollars.

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