Lawmakers seething over water hearing

This story was published 2/28/2002

By Chris Mulick
Herald staff writer

OLYMPIA -- Gov. Gary Locke's "five corner" negotiating scheme designed to forge consensus among lawmakers for sweeping water policy reform is in splinters as legislators hold this session's first water hearing tonight.

The fate of the team approach was cemented Wednesday when Senate Republicans and maverick Democrat Tim Sheldon took control of the chamber to pass, among others, a bill addressing municipal water rights.

That represents just one of four issues negotiators had been working on jointly.

The bill, which may jeopardize agreement on the remaining issues, is considered dead on arrival in the House, where Agriculture and Ecology Committee Chairwoman Kelli Linville remains set on moving all four issues equally.

"I am very disappointed," said Linville, D-Bellingham. "All that does is make some people uncomfortable."

The maneuver, which first was attempted Feb. 19 among a package of bills seeking to improve the state's business climate, has left Senate Democrats seething.

"We have been meeting regularly, coming in during weekends, working late at night," said Tacoma Sen. Debbie Regala, who said the action "totally undermines the work many of us have been doing for many, many months."

"It's a disappointment after more hours than I could ever count, this one is being pulled out of this process," said Karen Fraser, the Senate Democrats' top negotiator who Republicans circumvented in the same manner to get last year's water bill passed.

Two negotiators from each of the four caucuses plus a team from Locke's office headed by Jim Waldo -- thus the five corners -- have been meeting since September to hash out a bill. That bill was to do four things: Provide municipal water providers certainty about the availability of their unused rights, address the need for new storage and other waterworks projects, set stream flow targets for fish, and reform the state's "use it or lose it" laws for farmers.

Linville and Locke have insisted the four issues be negotiated jointly so no interest group could leave the table after getting their piece.

But after about 200 hours of talks during often lengthy early morning, late-night and weekend meetings, negotiators still didn't have a bill. The biggest hang-up remaining was how to set stream flow targets and devise a set of incentives to guarantee they'd be met.

Republicans, who had been tempted to try to split the issues before, officially did so by bringing Senate Bill 6793 to the floor Feb. 19 and passing it Wednesday by a 32-17 count.

The bill, which was not a part of the negotiating process and was not heard in committee, was introduced by Sheldon at the request of a utility in his rural, Western Washington district.

Orient Sen. Bob Morton, the Senate Republicans' top water negotiator, said after the vote the caucus brought the bill to the floor to try to get at least some sort of water bill passed before the session's scheduled March 14 adjournment.

"We're getting at the end of the line," he said.

But their effort likely will fail because Linville is intent on keeping all four issues together. Stuck squarely in the middle of conservative and liberal factions, Linville has introduced her own bill by pulling pieces of what she believes to be successful products of the closed-door negotiations.

House Bill 2993 is the first and only working version of a bill seeking to accomplish at least parts of all four goals negotiators first sought to accomplish. Though stakeholders still were looking it over Wednesday, it was not unilaterally chastised as were previously released drafts of other water bills.

Designed to give stakeholders some of what they want in equal portions, the bill figures to be criticized most by farmers and get mixed reactions from municipal water providers and environmentalists.


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