OLYMPIA – Homelessness is a statewide problem and needs a statewide response that includes prevention, rent assistance and housing, Gov. Jay Inslee told legislators Tuesday.
“Responding to homelessness can’t mean moving people down the road, to someone else’s city or to the next bridge,” Inslee said in his annual State of the State address. “It’s about giving them the tools and resources they need to get back on their feet.”
Republicans countered that they agree homelessness is a major problem but questioned whether the state is spending its money well on current programs. They also said Inslee left one of the state’s biggest issues out of his speech: the controversy over Initiative 976, which would reduce the cost of renewing a vehicle license but shrink the state’s transportation budget. Voters passed I-976 in November, but a judge put it on hold temporarily after a lawsuit was filed to stop it.
Inslee has ordered a seven-month pause in issuing contracts for some 26 major highway projects and longer delays on some mass transit, pedestrian and bicycle projects, to give the Legislature time to rearrange the transportation budget it passed last year and respond to the ramifications of I-976.
While Inslee didn’t broach the subject Tuesday, Republicans said they will push for legislation to gradually move the sales tax collected on vehicles from the General Fund into the transportation budget to make up for the loss of money if the initiative is upheld and to help make up for declining revenue from the state’s gas tax.
In the official GOP response to Inslee, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, criticized the governor’s priorities and the lack of funding for special education, which he said is largely underfunded despite last year’s budget that raised spending by 18%.
“There’s not nearly enough support for our developmentally disabled citizens,” Braun said. “And nursing homes in our state are closing at an alarming rate – with more closure forecasts.”
Inslee’s speech, titled “The Best of Who We Are,” was mostly upbeat and emphasized gains in state programs the Legislature approved last year. He recounted several encounters he had with people who had been homeless until state programs helped them. Patience and compassion can be strained, he said, but “we cannot grow cynical or discouraged.”
Inslee has asked the Legislature to tap the state’s emergency fund for more than $300 million to help pay for programs designed to address homelessness. But some lawmakers have balked at using that money for ongoing expenses, and a two-thirds majority would be required to draw from the so-called “Rainy Day Fund.”
Braun said that fund should be saved for when the state economy is slow, just as voters intended, and Inslee should look elsewhere if the money is needed to combat homelessness.
Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, echoed Braun’s position at a Republican leadership news conference after the speech.
“Using the Rainy Day Fund is a non-starter,” Schoesler said.
But Inslee said he’s open to looking elsewhere: “I will gauge our success not on where the money comes from, but how many people we can move to safe housing.”
Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said the state has seen the homeless population grow, even as it has increased spending on the problem. Instead of new programs, it should allow local governments to raise taxes to address homelessness, he said.
Republicans would like to give local governments the authority to raise local sales tax by as much as a fourth of a cent, and lower the state tax by an equal amount, for homelessness programs, he said. They would place a few conditions on the money, including a ban on drug injection sites and a ban on unauthorized camping within 500 feet of schools, parks or playgrounds.
Those requirements would provide a level of safety “to the people who will be paying the money,” Stokesbary said.
Inslee’s speech was also a victory lap of sorts for programs the Legislature approved last year, often on the strength of Democratic majorities in both chambers. He lauded the family and medical leave program that took effect this year; a new long-term care program that will be available for some workers in coming years; an expanded program for college aid; and the Career Connect program that links high school students who don’t plan on attending college with apprenticeships and other training programs.
“Our goal is nothing short of meaningful career training for anyone who wants it,” he said.
To illustrate his point, Inslee called out Olivia Perkins of Spokane, an invited guest at Tuesday’s speech who took advantage of a state program to learn welding so she could create and sell metal artwork. The Production and Manufacturing Academy joined with Greater Spokane Inc. to help Perkins, who eventually received a full scholarship to Spokane Community College.
Inslee also made a pitch for new standards for oil and gas producers that would gradually reduce pollution levels in fuel.
“We need to tackle this challenge with the same gusto and belief in inevitable success that have powered our previous triumphs,” he said.
Schoesler called the clean fuel standard “a gas tax with no roads,” because motorists would pay more for gasoline, but the funds wouldn’t be used for transportation projects.
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