Photo by Visitor7/Wikimedia

Photo by Visitor7/Wikimedia

Legislature takes important step toward resolving capital budget issue

A lack of state funding has put the squeeze on a number of organizations throughout the state.

Washington state’s elusive capital budget was brought closer to realization Monday afternoon 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 it 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.

Repercussion of the legislature’s failure have been felt throughout the state. In King County, for instance, a lack of state funding has put the squeeze on a number of organizations, such as Nexus Youth and Families, a nonprofit aimed at providing behavioral health and homeless services for youth and their families, is contingent on the passing of the budget.

“Until we have those capital funds we can’t do anything,” said Michael Jackson, the development director for Nexus, in reference to adding the HVAC and other building improvements. “We have no other plan, this is the only source of revenue we can tap into.”

Nexus is currently waiting on a $500,000 appropriation that would add heating, ventilation, and air conditioning to the main administrative building, improving air quality for employees and the people who go there for services.

“Everything in our budget is stretched so thin,” Jackson said. “We hoped they could get their minds together and do this for the community.”

Affordable housing is also at stake. A low-income development in Kent aimed primarily at helping homeless veterans that has been two years in the making could be delayed for another year or more if legislators fail to give the final budget approval on Wednesday.

More than 20 people showed up to testify on the proposed capital budget at first public hearing for SB 6090 last week, 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 isa step toward releasing capital budget funds, as the bipartisan-sponsored bill received unanimous approval in the Senate Ways & 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.

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.