Gov. Jay Inslee is ready to deliver the “audacious things” that his budget, released Wednesday, is promising for Washington residents.
In a virtual meeting with The Columbian’s editorial board Thursday, Inslee said his $70 billion budget for the 2023-25 biennium will tackle the state’s three most pressing priorities: homelessness, mental health care and the transition to a clean energy economy.
Inslee said everyone in the state has been impacted by the homelessness crisis.
“We believe we need to have a reality-based budget, which means you have to make major investments to get on top of the homelessness crisis we have,” Inslee said. “This is a housing crisis. We do not have enough houses. We’re maybe dead last in availability of housing in our state per capita.”
Inslee said solving the lack of affordable housing can’t be left to the private sector and that new housing must be built to match the scale of the shortage. While the state has invested more than $500 million in the last several years, Inslee said, it’s still not enough. He also said changes to zoning laws that block developers from building housing are still needed. He said he would again ask the Legislature to work on those changes in the upcoming session.
“We have to step up to the plate, because I believe Washingtonians are demanding an end to the squalor they’re seeing on virtually every street corner across the state of Washington,” he said.
To finance the $4 billion Inslee wants to put toward building 26,500 additional housing units over six years, the governor is proposing a referendum that would allow legislators to front-load construction costs. The referendum would have to be approved by voters and would allow the state to issue bonds outside of the its debt limit.
If lawmakers and voters approve the referendum, the money would be spent on emergency supportive housing, housing for individuals with special needs, community capacity for behavioral health, affordable housing units for lower- and middle-income workers, and down payment and closing-cost assistance for low-income, first-time homebuyers.
Addressing the state’s mental heath care needs will begin with financing Western State Hospital, which Inslee said is “pivotal to our efforts to end the concerns people have with folks being in county jails that aren’t getting mental health treatment.”
The governor wants to continue the state’s efforts to build community-based health clinics, especially those that provide crisis intervention to youth.
“Homelessness and mental health go together, because we know such a significant portion of our chronically homeless people have significant mental health challenges,” he said.
Inslee is also looking to expand on 2021’s Climate Commitment Act and 2019’s Clean Energy Transformation Act, which committed the state to an electricity supply free of greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.
“We’re proud of what we’ve done, and now we have an opportunity because of the Climate Commitment Act to make the investments we need to make to continue our efforts to build a clean energy economy,” he said.
The governor’s budget includes protections for the state’s salmon population and building five new hybrid-electric ferries while converting three ferries to hybrid-electric.
Although this latest budget — which allocates $30.8 billion for education, $10.2 billion for social and health services, nearly $7.5 billion for the state’s Health Care Authority, and $5.8 billion for higher education — is roughly 12 percent higher than the current budget, Inslee said he believes voters will support it.
“It’s not how I sell it; it’s what the voters want to purchase. I think they want to purchase the end of homelessness,” the governor said. “I think they want to purchase their kids being able to get mental health (treatment) when they’re in a mental health crisis. And I think the voters want to be able to breathe air in the summer that’s not choking on forest fires. In order to obtain those goals, this is the kind of investment that is necessary.”