Washington State Agency Layoffs: Legislature’s Indecision on Water Rights Leads to Job Cuts at Parks Department

Washington State Agency layoffs
iStock.com/Paul_Bev

Lack of a state capital budget has resulted in layoffs at the Washington State Parks Department, and additional state agency layoffs are expected. The capital budget usually gets bipartisan support in the state legislature and is approved without quarrel. Not this time, however.

The Washington state legislature is divided down party lines, with Republicans insisting the Democrats accept GOP proposals to reverse part of a state Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hirst vs. Whatcom County water rights case decision before they agree to pass the two-year capital budget.

The ongoing stalemate has prevented the passing of the state’s $4.2-billion capital construction budget and is leading to a significant number of layoffs. The capital budget included $1.0 billion for K-12 school construction and money to help build facilities for Washington state’s mental health system. The capital construction budget was also designed to pay the salaries of hundreds of state workers across various departments.

And it’s likely to get worse, with little sign of progress on the negotiation front.

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Bipartisan Water Rights Feud Leads to Job Cuts

The fact is that improvements to hospitals, schools, and infrastructure is on hold and jobs are being slashed because Democrats and Republicans are fighting about water. To pass the $4.2-billion budget, both parties have to address the state Supreme Court’s Hirst ruling.

Last October, the court ruled that individual counties (and not the Ecology Department) must evaluate whether there is adequate water available before providing new building permits.

Republicans, who control the state senate, have been using the capital budget as a bargaining chip to get the state to overturn the Hirst ruling. The GOP says the decision has made construction efforts difficult in some rural areas and has even left some rural property owners without water.

Lawmakers have proposed a “Hirst fix” which would allow counties to continue relying on the Ecology Department, but the deal has stalled. There are concerns that managing water resources is too costly and complicated to be handled by individual counties. This is in part because it involves studies of watersheds that cross county lines and due to how tapping aquifers affect nearby water supplies. As a result of the legislative stalemate, counties have gone the route of building prohibitions.

Adopting the “Hirst fix” would temporarily alleviate the water resource issue and give the legislature time to find a balance between the preservation of a finite commodity and rural growth.

Layoffs at State Park Department

Failing to pass the capital construction budget has resulted in the stoppage of dozens of major projects across the state. In addition to schools and hospitals, the capital construction budget also included proposals to conserve environmentally sensitive land and to implement new emergency response measures, such as a National Guard readiness center that was supposed to replace older, outdated locations in Olympia and Puyallup.

Because of the stalled construction budget, the cash-strapped state has had to start laying people off. Over the past weekend, the Washington State Parks Department laid off 10. The move is part of what officials believe is the biggest wave of layoffs related to the stalled construction budget.

Most state agencies use reserves and other creative ways to avoid laying off employees that are covered by the capital budget. The state Parks department didn’t even make it to October before it had to resort to layoffs.

And more layoffs will happen if there is no capital budget by March 15, 2018.

More Layoffs Expected at Several State Agencies 

More state employees are expecting to lose their jobs soon. How many is not yet known, as state officials have not provided an exact number.

At the Department of Enterprise Services, 18 people have received a 15-day layoff notice. Over at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, officials have said they will not be able to keep 13 temporary workers on past the end of October and will have to lay off six staff members if there is no capital budget in December.

If there is no capital budget by March 2018, the Department of Fish and Wildlife said it would be forced to lay off around 50 employees, with more cuts on the horizon.

At the University of Washington, roughly 125 employees are funded by the state’s capital budget. The university has not yet sent out layoff notices and is looking for ways to keep these staff members employed. But without a capital budget, the university will eventually run out of options.

The long-term effects of the Supreme Court’s Hirst decision could be much more dire. While the broader impact of the Hirst case is open for debate, according to the Building Industry Association of Washington, in a worst-case scenario, it could result in the loss of 9,300 jobs in rural areas, $4.59 billion in construction spending, and millions of dollars in lost tax revenue on both the state and local levels.

Sources

Lawmakers must strike deal on ‘Hirst’ water-rights ruling,” The Seattle Times, July 17, 2017.

Threat of state employee layoffs still real as capital budget impasse persists,” The Olympian, August 8, 2017.

Improvements to schools and hospitals delayed while politicians fight about water,” The News Tribune, July 15, 2017.

With no capital budget, wave of layoffs hits state agency. More are expected soon,” The News Tribune, October 2, 2017.

State capital budget hostages still at risk,” The Olympian, September 27, 2017.

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