OLYMPIA — Funding schools and fixing the state’s struggling mental health system are top priorities for the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers and the governor said Thursday during panel discussions in Olympia.
“We are in a crisis when it comes to mental health in this state,” said Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, who chairs the Behavioral Health Subcommittee. “It’s unacceptable for our jails to be our mental health hospitals.”
Gov. Jay Inslee said his top priorities are climate change, working on behavioral health and saving the orcas. Inslee said he hopes to help by reducing noise and removing culverts that impact salmon.
He rejected criticism that he is ignoring the needs of Washington state as he looks toward a possible run for president in 2020, in particular his upcoming trip to Nevada and beyond.
“You can be assured, if I have travels, I have a fantastic story to tell — the story of Washington,” he said at The Associated Press Legislative Preview in Olympia.
The state has enjoyed spectacular growth, had the first net-neutrality law in the U.S. and is considered the best place to do business in the country, he said.
House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said he was sure the state would function while Inslee explores a presidential bid, “but it makes it more difficult to concentrate on good government when you’ve got people looking for the next position.”
The Legislature opens the 2019 session Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said now that the state is no longer being held in contempt for its failure to adequately fund education lawmakers can look more broadly at what’s needed.
“We need to build a system for high-quality early learning and to help low income kids go to college,” he said. “We can look holistically now that we don’t have a court order that forces us to look at one piece.”
The 2012 McCleary decision by the state Supreme Court found that the state had violated its constitution by underfunding K-12 schools. The state had been in contempt of court from 2014 until June of last year for lack of progress on that ruling, and daily sanctions of $100,000 — allocated specifically for education spending — had been accruing since August 2015.
School funding makes up about 50 percent of the state’s budget, so it will be a priority, said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. Special education will be a high priority for lawmakers, he said.
Among Inslee’s priorities is a $675 million plan to improve mental health services in Washington.
The money would go to hire more workers in the field. The Democrat’s plan also would pay for hundreds of new community mental-health beds and create a partnership with the University of Washington to establish a new teaching hospital focused on behavioral health.
“This is a transformative effort,” Inslee said of the mental health recovery plan. “We need to increase the scale of our efforts, the number of people who are served” and go to a more community-based system.
Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, ranking Republican on the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, said behavioral health is a long-term problem and “we’ve to come out of this session with a plan.”
One of the most glaring mental health problems is the ongoing violence at the state’s largest psychiatric facility. Staff and patents at Western State Hospital are assaulted on a daily basis, according to a report by The Associated Press.
The lawmakers on the panel agreed that safety was a problem but failed to offer any solutions.
Inslee said they plan to address the violence by adding Plexiglass around the nursing stations, training personnel and hiring more people.
“We’ve been building staffing levels,” he said. “It’s the principle reason for the overtime. We have a lot more work to do.”
The lawmakers and Inslee agreed that one solution would be to move some of the mental health care into communities.
“We can get more creative. We can do inpatient and outpatient competency restoration,” Dhingra said. “There are forensic patients who can be restored in the community.”
Many also agreed that Western State Hospital is too old to function adequately and it would be cheaper to replace it.
“We need a new state hospital and we need a lot in the community,” said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. “But the bulk of this should be in the community.”