By Alex Visser
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
Washington state’s elusive capital budget was brought closer to realization Monday afternoon, Jan. 15, when a Senate committee approved a bill that allocates spending for the 2017-19 biennium.
The capital budget pays for state-authorized construction projects over a two-year period across Washington. When the Legislature failed to pass a capital budget last year, many projects that were supposed to be funded were put on hold.
Senate Bill 6090 authorizes around $4.2 billion in new projects for the biennium, nearly a quarter of which would go to public schools.
Much of the budget’s holdup is tied to the so-called Hirst decision, handed down by the Washington State Supreme Court in 2016, which made it more expensive and difficult for landowners to drill wells for household use.
Although the two issues are not directly related, Republicans and Democrats last year were unable to come to terms on a Hirst fix, which in turn caused Republicans to rebuff attempts to settle on a capital budget.
Even with a newfound one-seat majority in the Senate, Democrats will need help from the other side of the aisle, as the passage of a capital budget requires a 60-percent vote in each chamber.
More than 20 people showed up to testify on the proposed capital budget at SB 6090’s first public hearing on Jan. 11, and all testified in support of its passage. Represented were public education, natural resources, and other government sectors.
Taking to the microphone first was Mike Hrachovec, principal engineer with Natural Systems Design.
Hrachovec explained that his company is involved in river restoration projects across the state and was hoping to bring on four more staff members, but is now struggling just to maintain its current employees.
“If the capital budget doesn’t pass in two months, we’re going to be in a very desperate situation,” Hrachovec said. “There’s a lot of work we have to do to get people back to work; it’s time to get going.”
Walter Schact had similar fears regarding his organization, the American Institutes of Architects, where he serves on the Washington Council.
“The delay in the capital budget had a significant negative impact on the projects and on our firm,” he said. “We’ve already lost about 10 percent of our staff because there just isn’t work to do in the office.”
Schact said the institute works mostly on higher education projects, and that the delay of a single community college project last year has already resulted in millions of dollars in escalation costs. He said if the budget doesn’t pass, the firm will have to decide whether to lay off its employees or go into debt to keep them around.
SB 6090 is a step toward releasing capital budget funds, as the bipartisan-sponsored bill received unanimous approval in the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Monday. The bill now awaits a signature from the Rules Committee, after which it will be sent to the Senate floor for deliberation.