With no capital budget, wave of layoffs hits state agency

By Walker Orenstein

The News Tribune

Barbara Alten, a construction coordinator for Washington State Parks in Burlington, watched news of the state’s legislative session closely this year to see whether projects she was working on would get money in the construction budget.

Unfortunately for Alten, more than just construction projects ended up without money when that budget never materialized, thanks to a legislative battle related to a 2016 state Supreme Court ruling on water usage.

She was laid off Saturday along with nine others at the Parks department as part of what officials believe is the biggest wave of layoffs so far related to the lack of a construction budget.

That budget, known in Olympia as the capital budget, typically gets bipartisan support and is approved without controversy.

But a divide between Republicans and Democrats over water-related legislation stalled it this year, halting construction projects across the state and now leading to significant layoffs.

The capital budget was expected to have roughly $4 billion, including $1 billion for K-12 school construction and money to help build facilities for the state’s mental health system. It also pays the salaries of hundreds of state workers in various departments.

Most state agencies, colleges and universities have used reserves and other means to avoid laying off staffers usually paid for with money from the capital budget.

The Parks department didn’t make it out of September without resorting to layoffs.

More state employees are expected to lose their jobs soon, although state officials did not have an exact number Monday.

At the Department of Enterprise Services, 18 employees are getting 15-day layoff notices this week or received a notice on Friday. Some of those workers may get placed at other jobs at DES or in state government, but layoffs for some of the employees are expected this month.

At the Parks department, agency spokeswoman Virginia Painter said more layoffs would happen if there’s no capital budget by March 15.

Officials at the Department of Fish and Wildlife said they won’t be able to extend 13 temporary workers as expected by the end of October and would have to lay off another six employees if there’s no capital budget in December. If there’s no capital budget by March, roughly 50 employees could be laid off with more cuts possible.

When a capital budget is eventually passed, some state workers might get their jobs back or be able to take different jobs within state government.

Alten said she isn’t in crisis mode financially, despite being the sole breadwinner in a house with two teenage boys in Bellingham. She said she is applying for other jobs and might have to either move or take a step back professionally with a new position.

“I like my job,” Alten said. “I was doing good work.”

At issue is fallout from a 2016 state Supreme Court ruling known as the Hirst decision. In that case, the state’s high court said Whatcom County needed to more intensively regulate the drilling of small wells used mainly for drinking water out of concern they drain water used by fish, tribes and others with senior water rights.

New responsibilities for counties effectively have stopped construction for some rural property owners and forced others to pay extra to get approval to drill wells.

Republicans who control the state Senate, backed by some business and construction interests, have pushed to essentially reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling while spending more money on other water-conservation efforts. The GOP contends the new regulations are too onerous and will cost either counties, or homeowners, too much money.

Democrats who have a majority in the House, with support from tribes and some environmental groups, argue the state should delay requirements of the court’s ruling to study the issue more . Many in the party also say the extra scrutiny of water usage asked for by the court is necessary for conservation.

The GOP has refused to hold a final vote on the capital budget until a compromise is reached.

State Rep. Steve Tharinger, a Democrat from Sequim who is the party’s leader on the capital budget, said Monday he was “really concerned about these people losing their jobs” and said the Legislature should pass a capital budget and keep negotiating on Hirst separately.

“I mean it’s just a self-inflicted wound,” he said. “There’s no reason we should be doing this.”

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, a Republican from Ritzville, and two other Republican senators who are involved in Hirst legislation and the capital budget were unavailable for comment Monday.

The GOP’s top negotiator on Hirst, Sen. Judy Warnick of Moses Lake, said in late July that for many people the Hirst decision “precludes them from using their property,” and a solution can’t wait for more discussion.

“If there’s a fix to be found, it needs to be found right now,” Warnick said at the time.

Warnick and Schoesler are currently abroad on a trade mission, according to staff at the state Capitol.

Gov. Jay Inslee last week said he believes there is still a “reasonable chance” a deal can be reached on Hirst before lawmakers reconvene in January for the 2018 session.

Inslee attacked the GOP for tying the capital budget to Hirst legislation, but said: “We also have to find some bipartisan solution to this Hirst conundrum.”

County officials and lawmakers have said the Hirst ruling has economic impacts in affected areas from halted construction on buildings that now can’t get water. No nonpartisan analysis has been conducted statewide on the issue, however.

For now, Alten is urging lawmakers to pass a capital budget and figure out Hirst separately. She said she wants to keep working for the state and is excited about a project to build an interpretive center at Mount Constitution which will explain the “geology and history of the area.”

“Why tie up Parks?” Alten asked. “We’re trying to do good for the whole state.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein