OLYMPIA – Washington must fix its mental health system and continue improving its schools, but the most “imminent threat” the Legislature should tackle in the 2019 session is climate change, Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday.
“I don’t know of any other issue that touches the heart of things so many of us care about: our jobs, our health, our safety and our children’s future,” Inslee told a joint session of the Legislature. “It’s a time of great peril, but also of great promise.’
The Legislature should pass laws to ensure all electricity in Washington is generated without fossil fuels by 2035, taking advantage of the good jobs that solar and wind energy offer as well as the reduction in carbon pollution, he said. It should make its buildings more energy-efficient and get more electric vehicles on the road.
In previous years, Inslee has backed financial penalties, such as taxes, fees or a cap-and-trade system, to force reductions in carbon emissions. In November, voters convincingly rejected a carbon fee, and this year he’s looking for incentives and regulations to fight climate change, which could be a signature issue if he runs for president.
He occasionally sounded like he was test-driving some themes for such a campaign with shots at Washington, D.C., or the Trump administration.
“During the last two years, we’ve been challenged by federal actions that appeal more to our darker natures than our better angels,” Inslee said as he segued into a list of recent state accomplishments.
The governor made no specific mention of increased taxes or fees to pay for new environmental programs or any of the other policies he discussed in his Sate of the State speech. The budget he proposed in December calls for both an increase to the state business and occupation tax for the service industry, and a capital gains tax on people who have more than $25,000 in profits from certain investments as an individual, or $50,000 as a couple.
Legislative Republicans, who are the minority in both chambers, likened the governor to a child putting everything on a Christmas wish list or a person who wants to talk about benefits but never costs.
“Anybody can say we’re going to do everything without saying how we’re going to pay for it,” Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said later.
An improved mental health system is also an urgent challenge, Inslee said. With the state’s two mental hospitals aging and in need of expensive updates, he wants the Legislature to support a new system of community-based mental health facilities to keep patients closer to their families, more programs to increase the number of mental health professionals, and a new mental health teaching hospital at the University of Washington.
He complimented legislators for completing a multiyear effort to satisfy the Washington Supreme Court’s order that the state, not the local school districts, must pay for basic education. But that’s not the end of the state’s responsibility to improve its schools, he said.
His budget will call for a new preschool program that covers birth to age 3, and a referral system to connect families with early learning services. He also proposes a program that would give every new parent a home visit from a nurse in the first few weeks after a baby is born.
For students finishing high school, he’s proposing more state money for students to sign up for apprenticeships or internships and expanded financial aid for students who can’t afford college.
Inslee also drew sharp contrasts between state actions during his tenure and federal activities during the Trump administration. Washington passed a Voting Rights Act, made it easier for people to cast ballots and “opens our communities to refugees,” he said. It protects workers rights and has paid family and medical leave
“While the president stokes fear of ‘the other’ at every opportunity, we’re the state that embraces our differences and diversity,” he said. “While too many in D.C. remain in the grip of the NRA, we’re the state that stands up for common sense gun-safety reforms.”
That brought Democrats in the chamber and visitors in the gallery above to a standing ovation, but Republicans remained silent in their seats.
The same thing happened a few minutes later when Inslee took a shot at the Trump administration’s border policies: “While other places close their borders and fear the unfamiliar, we’re the state that opens our communities to refugees seeking safety, shelter and sanctuary.”
That partisan divide in the audience also was evident when Inslee ticked off what he considers a list of recent legislative accomplishments, such as supporting net neutrality, offering to pardon residents with misdemeanor marijuana convictions or ensuring reproductive rights for women, or when he called on lawmakers to abolish capital punishment.
Those changes happened because of bold action, optimism and “because we didn’t give up,” he said.