Education tops Inslee’s to-do list in State of State address

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday laid out a short to-do list for this legislative session: ease a statewide teacher shortage, improve mental health services and cover the costs of last summer’s devastating wildfires.

And a fourth item, one which he called “absolutely necessary”, is agreeing on the blueprint for ensuring the state meets a 2018 deadline to provide ample funding for the public school system.

It will require passing a bill this year that keeps the legislature on track to make the spending decisions next year, he said.

“We’re not going to just fix a few potholes, we’re going to finish the job,” Inslee said in his State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate. “That means actually financing these critical investments so our kids and grandkids get the education they deserve.”

Not much in Inslee’s speech surprised Republicans.

“I think you’ll find most of his goals are very similar to ours,” House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen said. “The route that we take to attain those goals … is going to be the difference.”

On education, Inslee called for higher teacher pay to help recruit and retain instructors, and thereby erase a teacher shortage.

He wants to hike starting pay for teachers to $40,000 and give a 1 percent raise to instructors statewide. He’s called for closing a handful of tax breaks to generate the money to pay for it.

Washington can have small class sizes and the best mentors for teachers, he said, but if “nobody is standing in front of the classroom, we’ve got zip.”

Regarding the wildfires, he’s proposed siphoning $180 million from reserves to cover the costs and $29 million from the Disaster Response Account to help communities in the fire zones rebuild and recover.

On mental health services, Inslee’s proposed supplemental budget contains roughly $137 million to hire additional nurses and psychiatrists at state psychiatric hospitals, operate four new 16-bed triage facilities and three new crisis teams across the state.

Some of the money will help the state comply with a federal court order to reduce wait times for mentally ill inmates locked up in jail. Some of the money, he said, will expand services for those in the community living with mental illness.

“We need to make sure that we have the appropriate services in place for them,” he said. These aren’t nameless, faceless people. They are our loved ones. They are our colleagues. They are our friends. Let’s get this done for these folks this year.”

Also Tuesday, Inslee, who is seeking re-election this fall, pushed his plans for reducing gun-related deaths and curbing pollution-causing carbon emissions.

Inslee did make brief mention of the Department of Corrections error that for 13 years allowed inmates to be released early.

He said those responsible would be held accountable. He also encouraged state employees and managers to speak up when they see something “is not working right” in their agency.

Inslee also backed the ballot measure to hike the statewide minimum wage to $13.50 and allow workers to earn paid sick leave. It was filed Monday.

“I stand on this rock-solid belief: If you work 40 hours a week, you deserve a wage that puts a roof over your head and food on the table, period. And you shouldn’t have to give up a day’s pay if you or your kids get sick,” he said.

Republicans refrained from taking a position on the initiative. They have consistently opposed boosting wages out of concern it would lead to job losses at businesses in rural areas. Also they worry it will make agricultural products more expensive leading to fewer exports.

Kristiansen said he was surprised by Inslee’s strong backing of the measure.

“Typically that’s something we as elected officials don’t do because it’s considered using public resources to get behind an initiative,” he said.

He said he wasn’t alleging wrongdoing. “I am not going to go that far,” he said.

Inslee also said he asked the Washington State Investment Board to “exercise its voting authority to reduce the widening pay gap” between workers and chief executives of companies in which state dollars are invested

The board, whose 10 voting members include two lawmakers and the state treasurer, manage investments for Washington State pension and other public trust funds.

That didn’t please GOP lawmakers.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a governor politicize the State Investment Board,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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