Senate Hirst Bill: It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

Senate Hirst Bill: It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over
Without a House bill variant left standing, state lawmakers are putting their faith in SB 5239. They argue the bill will be this session's legislative solution to problems stemming from the 2016 Hirst decision. Photo: Steven Pavlov

The fight for a potential fix to Hirst isn’t over quite yet. Despite SB 5239 failing to receive a vote before the Wednesday, March 29 cutoff for passing bills out of committee, Washington state lawmakers are still working to bring relief to the landowners, construction businesses, Native American tribes, and other Washingtonians directly impacted by the 2016 “Hirst” Supreme Court ruling. Stakeholders negotiations will begin again this week and continue until the kinks are worked out, according to key lawmakers.

The bill’s passage would be significant for those residents, since it would directly address some of the negative impacts stemming from the high court’s decision, which they testified places their large investments into plots of land at risk, and prevents further rural development in areas without access to municipal water.

Under SB 5239, counties or cities would be able to once again rely on Department of Ecology guidelines for water quality standards under the Growth Management Act (GMA), among other provisions related to building permits reliant on well water in those areas, while taking instream flows and water quality into account.

Prime sponsor is State Sen. Judy Warnick (R-13). On February 28, the Senate approved the measure in a 28-21 vote.

Last week, the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee failed to take executive action on the measure before the March 29 deadline. One day prior, bankers testified in committee the measure would address devalued property in those areas stemming from the ruling. Also vocal were representatives from Native American tribes who cited concern with the bill’s impact on impairment analyses and existing fish populations.

Hirst Bill’s Fate Not Over

Committee Chair Brian Blake (D-19) told Lens, “I think it’s a critical issue that I believe the legislature has to address this year and I am hopeful we get it done…I don’t think the bill not coming out of committee means anything.”

Blake said he was meeting with Senator Warnick on Monday, April 3 to “talk about assembling the right people and see if we can’t negotiate a bill that we can work with and then move it along, and so I am hopeful we will be able to construct something that will move us forward after the Hirst decision.”

According to Blake, the bill contains agreed-to language, which means it can be pulled to the floor calendar “very quickly.”

On Monday, April 3, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler (R-9) expressed concern to reporters about SB 5239 passing the Senate, but struggling to make it through the House. “(House Democrats) can’t get their own bill out of committee, their own watered down bill cannot get out of committee, let alone a good bill that had 28 bipartisan votes in the Senate,” he said.

Schoesler was referring to HB 1885 which stalled in House Appropriations in mid-February and never made it to the House floor. He added the Hirst decision is “just an attack on all 39 counties in the state of Washington that have unincorporated areas.”

During the same media availability, Senate Majority Caucus Chair Randi Becker (R-2) told reporters, “When you think about the Hirst decision and what it’s actually doing to the property values out in our rural areas…and then you start adding on all the taxes that this D-budget wants to put on us, people are done. (Residents) are saying ‘we just can’t afford it anymore.’

Last week, the House Democrats released their 2017-19 proposed operating budget, which includes a seven percent capital gains income tax. As State Sen. Dino Rossi told reporters, Washingtonians would spend $3 billion more under that budget compared to the previous one.

Lawmakers Push To Resolve Hirst

Other lawmakers are also vocalizing the importance of resolving the negative impacts of Hirst before the session ends. State Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42) is one keyed-in lawmaker whose district includes Whatcom County where the Hirst case originated.

In an online statement last week, he said, “I am disappointed the House Agriculture Committee failed to take a vote and advance the bill further in the process, but that doesn’t mean the issue is dead.”

He added, “I will be continuing to work to correct the court’s misguided decision in this case. While I am happy to look for compromise, the ultimate solution cannot violate the fundamental rights of property owners.”

Warnick: ‘This Issue Is Not Just About Water’

In an update last week, Warnick said, “I am disappointed that the House committee was unable to move my legislation that brings needed relief to residents in rural areas of our state…when the session began, the impacts of the Hirst decision became painfully clear. The lives of the people I represent and really, of all of Washington’s residents who don’t have the luxury of hooking up to city water systems, are being adversely affected and it demands action.”

She added, “This issue is not just about water. The inability for housing development in rural areas is crippling for county revenues, for school districts and for areas in our state that haven’t felt the economic recovery like the Central Puget Sound has. Families are hurting and they deserve relief.”

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Mike Richards grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. He graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA with a degree in Multiplatform Journalism and a minor in Public Relations. He wrote and published articles at Pittsburgh’s NPR station covering a variety of topics.

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