By Brett Davis | The Center Square
(The Center Square) – Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee called on lawmakers to deal with the state’s challenges – first and foremost among them: homelessness – with “ambition and audacity” during his State of the State speech on Tuesday, the second day of the legislative session.
This year’s State of the State was the first in-person address to a joint session of the state Legislature in two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a fact Inslee joked about in his opening remarks.
“My fellow Washingtonians, after two years of delivering the State of the State virtually, it really is great to be back together again,” the governor said. “And I want to tell you, you all look great. You haven’t aged a day in two years, so there’s good news here.”
Inslee then got more serious, noting what is expected of himself and lawmakers during this year’s 105-day legislative session.
“As leaders, we will be called upon these next few months to act with decisiveness, with ambition, with audacity,” the governor said. “And the good news is, is that here in Washington state ambition and audacity are both embedded in our state’s DNA.”
Inslee reflected on the progress made in recent years in tackling issues like housing, mental health, and climate change before launching into a familiar State of the State refrain.
“It is because of the work we do in these chambers and because of that work and because of the work of millions of Washingtonians,” the governor said. “I can proudly report to you this: the state of our state is strong.”
But that doesn’t mean challenges don’t remain, including homelessness, the first issue mentioned in depth by the governor in outlining his vision for the state.
“When there’s not enough housing for all, rents and prices skyrocket beyond what many can afford,” Inslee said. “An until we fix our housing crisis, thousands of people will remain homeless.”
Washington is short 81,000 housing units, according to the governor, and the state’s population grew by nearly 1 million people in the last decade.
Housing stock only grew by 315,000 units during this time, Inslee said, noting the state needs 1 million housing units in the next 17 years.
The governor cited Washington’s rapid-acquisition housing program, which began two years ago, that helped to speed up the process of developing affordable housing.
“That program is allowing us now to create thousands of new supportive housing units at a pace that has never been possible before,” Inslee said. “And this is a pace that we have to sustain and accelerate at scale.”
Inslee mentioned his December budget proposal that includes raising $4 billion by issuing bonds outside the state’s debt limit that will “significantly speed up construction of thousands of new units that will include shelters, supportive housing, and affordable housing.”
Several other issues were touched upon by the governor during his address.
The governor spoke about the rise in demand for competency evaluation and restoration services, noting a 60% increase in court orders since 2018 and a 145% increase in inpatient referrals since 2013.
“This is not sustainable,” Inslee observed.
He went on to say that although the state has added hundreds of forensic beds, more needs to be done.
“But even with all these investments, this unprecedented growth in court orders and referrals is not manageable or sustainable,” Inslee said. “Nor is our criminal justice system really an effective way to connect people to the treatment they really need to restore their lives. So, we should be prioritizing diversion and community-based treatment options rather than using the criminal justice system as an avenue to mental health care, particularly because competency services only treat people to get well enough to be prosecuted.”
Inslee mentioned his proposed budget’s greater investment in special education.
“I’m also hopeful this year that we can increase funding for special education,” the governor said. “I’ve proposed more than $120 million to better support school districts as they meet the needs of every student, no matter how complex their needs.”
The governor’s budget proposal includes an increase of $3 billion in K-12 education.
Inslee touted the Climate Commitment Act and the Clean Fuel Standard, both of which went into effect on Jan. 1, as a means of bringing down emissions and creating jobs as part of fighting climate change.
“And we’re doing this in a way that ensures overburdened communities will experience the economic and health benefits of this transition,” the governor said.
Inslee focused on proposed gun legislation when it came to public safety.
He noted he is asking for the Legislature to pass a permit-to-purchase law requiring prospective gun buyers to apply directly to a state or local law enforcement agency to obtain a purchase permit prior to approaching any seller, as well as making firearms training a requirement for getting the permit.
“One of the most meaningful measures and most effective measures that we can take is requiring that people have safety training, basic safety training, before they purchase a gun,” Inslee said.
The governor reaffirmed his commitment to protecting the right to abortion in Washington in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year overturning Roe v. Wade and giving individual states the power to set their own abortion laws.
“We must protect patient data and privacy,” Inslee said. “We must protect access from the threat of health care consolidation and cost barriers. We must protect patients and providers from persecution by vigilantes and activist politicians in anti-choice states.”
That includes, according to Inslee, amending the state constitution.
“And finally and most importantly we must pass a constitutional amendment that expressly establishes a fundamental right to reproductive freedom in the great state of Washington,” he said.