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Behind the scenes on the Hirst, Capital Budget deals

Last week’s big news that the logjam finally broke on legislation to address the Hirst decision meant that Washington State would also get a capital budget passed.

Despite some efforts to de-link those two bills, a capital budget simply wasn’t passing without a Hirst fix. And, it turns out that it wasn’t just Republicans who were unwilling to vote on a capital budget without a Hirst fix.  For a number of reasons, both on policy and politics, it turns out neither chamber had enough votes among Democrats alone to pass even the cash portion of the capital budget, which only required a simple majority.

So, how did this deal get done so soon in the new legislative session?

I spoke with legislators from both chambers on the topic, as well as lobbyists tracking the issue.

From those conversations, three key players stand out as key figures that drove the water legislation and the capital budget and which got a compromise across the finish line.

And, very importantly for how this session is already shaping up, it turns out they are all Senate Democrats.

First, Sen. Kevin Van De Wege got everyone in the room

Following the November election, there was talk about bringing legislators back for a special session to hammer out a bill.  But, it quickly became clear that there was neither a compromise bill nor a Democratic bill that would get a majority.

Gov. Inslee’s Department of Ecology worked closely with Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon to outline legislation that was shopped around in December. It created a framework that appeared to be something of a compromise.  However, neither set of stakeholders were willing to move off of their position.

One legislator told me “This was one of the thorniest issues I’ve ever seen.  Everyone had the same position they had last January, and no one was ready to compromise.”

So, the Fitzgibbon outline stalled.

That is it stalled until Sen. Kevin Van De Wege picked it up.

On the first night of the legislative session, Van De Wege convened all of the key stakeholders, including key Republican legislators like Sen. Judy Warnick.  He also got the capital budget leads to join, meaning Sen. Jim Honeyford and Sen. David Frockt.

Through negotiations that lasted until 1:30 am, Van De Wege was able to push through a compromise bill that later passed his committee unanimously.  Importantly, the bill ran on the first Thursday of session.  That meant that things were moving, and quickly.

Here’s what Sen. Van De Wege had to say about putting the deal together during the first week.

Once we took politics out of the equation and our state water needs came to the forefront, in two weeks we were able to reconcile a stalemate that had needlessly left all parties in limbo for months. I hope this approach can serve as an example as we deal with other difficult issues this session.

I suspect no one will be completely happy with this bill, which is probably a good indicator that this legislation does an evenhanded job of balancing competing interests. I know this agreement doesn’t reflect the tribes’ first wish, for instance, but we worked hard to protect tribal interests as well as environmental standards while allowing people to develop properties responsibly. I trust folks will recognize that we did our best to reconcile everyone’s concerns as fairly and practically as possible.

That weekend, stakeholders from both sides of the aisle blew up.  All four caucuses were under pressure to cave.  Sen. Van De Wege got things moving. But it was now time to consolidate that momentum.

Next, Sen. David Frockt re-opened the capital budget

Legislators tell me that the week one momentum caught a lot of folks off guard, but that there was hope that perhaps a compromise could be held together.  In this case, money is a good salve.

Sen. David Frockt is the Senate Democratic capital budget lead.  Whereas leadership in the House was firmly against linking the capital budget with a water bill, Frockt saw an opportunity to help keep Van De Wege’s effort moving.

Frockt negotiated an investment of $300m over 15 years for water conservation projects in the state.  It also included language that would allow those funds to go to fishery restoration, a nod to tribal interests that were not happy about the proposed compromise.

Opening the capital budget was a risk that Frockt knew had potential downsides.  The capital budget had already been agreed to.  Re-opening it could mean that previous agreement might come into question.

Moreover, stakeholders on both sides of the aisle could have mobilized to do damage to that bi-partisan agreement.  While only a handful of Democrats cared deeply about the water bill, all of Frockt’s caucus cared about the capital budget.

His willingness to move the capital budget in concert with the water bill was an important piece in getting a Hirst compromise finalized.  It meant that the timeline was compressed, moving quickly, and allowed a final deal to get done before things could get dragged down – either on the policy or fiscal side of the political equation.

Finally, Sen. Sharon Nelson played a vitally important leadership role to get the deal finished

“We’ve got a bill and we’re going to the floor with it.”

This was the message from Sen. Nelson to stakeholders concerned about the water bill.  With a majority of votes out of her caucus to move the bill, and with unanimous votes in the Natural Resources, Ways and Means, and Rules Committees, Nelson was ready to move the bill to the floor.

However, there was still no signal that the House would accept the compromise the Senate had developed.

Voting on a bill in the Senate, only to have the House kill the legislation, would have allowed progressive stakeholders to try to line up opposition to Senators, including potentially courting primary opponents.

Nelson’s willingness to bring the bill to the floor for a vote without the clear acceptance by Speaker Chopp – or Governor Inslee, for that matter – was a third significant political risk, following Van De Wege and Frockt’s work.

By moving the bill out of the Senate, it would put the onus on House Democrats to pass the bill, a caucus significantly divided on how best to address the issue.

No substantive policy on this issue was moving in the House. Rep. Larry Springer, Rep. Brian Blake and Rep. Steve Tharinger were advocates for finding a compromise solution.  However, Rep. Derek Stanford, one of the House leaders on the issue, would only support language that was acceptable only to the tribes.

This mean that, as the bill was coming to the floor and after it was passed, Sen. Sharon Nelson would have to continue to work the bill hard with her fellow Democrats, Speaker Chopp and Gov. Inslee.

In the end, Sen. Nelson’s leadership in the room with the five-corner leadership was decisive.

It was up to her to clear the way to bring the bill to the floor quickly, and up to her to be – as the lone woman in the room – a voice for compromise among the five-corner negotiations.

Without each of these three key figures in the Senate Democratic Caucus, there would not be a water bill or a capital budget so remarkably soon in the 2018 legislative session after it stalled throughout all of 2017.