A stalemate in Olympia over water rights is putting a pinch on the Richland School District.
After more than eight months and three special sessions, lawmakers still are at loggerheads over the capital budget, which funds construction projects around the state, including for schools.
The stalemate is forcing Richland officials to borrow money to fund early stages of the Jefferson Elementary School project, rather than using matching funds from the state.
Richland Superintendent Rick Schulte said the district will dip into the 2017 bond funds as a stopgap until the state settles on a budget, enabling construction on the school to continue.
“We have sufficient cash on hand to continue the Jefferson project,” he said. “If we did not have these funds, we would not have been able to open bids or award a construction contract.”
The holdup in Olympia is over a state Supreme Court decision that a group of predominately Republican lawmakers says cripples the ability for developers to add housing in rural areas.
The Hirst decision, which is tied to the capital budget, forbids counties from relying on Department of Ecology determinations of available water for new development. Instead, either the county or the developer is responsible for a study to determine the impact on nearby rivers, streams or other water rights.
Senators pushed for a solution for most of the session, with Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, leading the charge.
The House offered a proposal to temporarily delay implementing the decision, but Warnick said it failed to address the main issue: Banks won’t lend money to develop land where there isn’t a guaranteed source of water.
For their part, House Democrats expressed disappointment the Senate wouldn’t agree to their proposal.
Leaders from both the House and Senate as well as representatives from the governor’s office met last week to discuss a solution to the impasse.
Meanwhile, the holdup on matching funds is affecting school construction across the state, including in Franklin and Yakima counties.
While Jefferson can move forward, it remains unclear what the cost of drawing money from the 2017 bond funds will mean for the set of projects included in the $99 million package approved by voters in February.
Schulte said the district would use the state money to replace the funds it borrows.
In a letter to Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, Schulte said the delay is very concerning, not just because of cash-flow issues, but it “has the appearance and effect of breaking trust with the voters and taxpayers, who approved a bond election with the understanding that state matching funds would be provided in a timely manner.”
Schulte called the delay a violation of the state’s duty to put education first, effectively holding education hostage to a solution concerning water rights.