Democrats howl over Hirst, but keep these things in mind

There has been plenty of indignation expressed – some real, some with crocodile tears – since legislators adjourned without passing a construction budget or a fix to the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision. Much editorial ink has been spilled since then.

The Hirst decision reaches a conclusion about growth management law that legislators never intended. The decision is begging for a correction, and Senate Republicans are attempting to reach one by using the leverage available to them. Despite the cluck-clucking, that is a pretty standard move in Olympia and state capitols everywhere. As you hear the caterwauling about Republicans holding out, bear a few things in mind.

1) The temporary two-year fix offered by House Democrats isn’t really a fix. It would help only some of the families caught in Hirst Those with financing already in place, and who had permits in hand when the court released its ruling, would be in a position to take advantage of the reprieve. So too would wealthy people who can afford to pay cash for a home or weekend getaway.

But for those starting the process, and those needing a mortgage – which is most people – the two-year reprieve might not be enough. Obtaining a mortgage will be more difficult thanks to the uncertainty around the process. “How are the bankers going to finance that? They’re not going to finance development when there’s this big question mark,” a Cowlitz County commissioner told The Daily News.

And property owners whose building plans are farther in the future still face the prospect of having invested in land that they can’t build on, gutting its value because of government action. There will be no compensation fund coming to their rescue.

2) Not everyone in Olympia wants a Hirst fix. House Democrats have adopted a “we’re just trying to be reasonable here and find a solution” public stance, and some editorial boards have accepted that line.

But some environmental activist allies of the House Democrats not only reject the need for a Hirst fix, they actually want to see it expanded. They want Hirst applied to existing well users too. Hoped-for expansions include well metering, or shutting down existing well use until those owners, too, can pay for hydrological studies.

3) The two-year delay, as much as it is pitched as some moderate compromise, greatly favored one side. Lawmakers love to delay legislation in hopes that the next election will favor their side. With control of the state Senate hinging on the special election in the 45th, Democrats have an incentive to either hold out on Hirst or offer a patchwork, temporary solution. They hope that, come January, they can decide policy without having to accommodate Republican and rural viewpoints.

4) Rumors abound in Olympia about what really went on behind the scenes. Most believe there were enough votes in the House to pass the Senate’s Hirst fix, if it had been allowed to come to the floor. Instead, House leadership bottled it up.

 Why they did is a matter of speculation. One theory is that Speaker Frank Chopp was inclined to allow the bill to move forward (the capital budget proposal, after all, contains $106 million for affordable housing, Chopp’s favorite issue) but a majority of his caucus opposed the move and his speakership was threatened. The other main theory is that Chopp and leadership deferred to environmental groups and some tribes, which are major backers of Olympia Democrats.

It’s notable that House Democrats insist on passing a capital budget while being fine with letting a Hirst fix die on the vine. So, they favor directly funding urban housing projects but oppose letting rural residents build with their own money.

Both sides need to keep talking, and approach the bargaining table in good faith. That will require two sides that actually want to find a solution.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.