Gov. Jay Inslee greets a visitor after his State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature on Tuesday in Olympia. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Gov. Jay Inslee greets a visitor after his State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature on Tuesday in Olympia. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Washington governor highlights climate in State of the State

Jay Inslee also urged action in the areas of mental health care, orca preservation and education.

By Rachel La Corte / Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told a joint session of the Legislature Tuesday that more action needs to be taken by the state to address “the imminent threat of climate change.”

Inslee, who is mulling a possible 2020 presidential bid, highlighted climate as his top issue in his annual State of the State address to lawmakers who this week started their 105-day legislative session.

Inslee cited concerns about low snowpack, ocean temperatures and last year’s wildfires that impacted air quality in the state.

“I don’t know of any other issue that touches the heart of things so many of us care about: our jobs, our health, our safety and our children’s future,” he said in prepared remarks.

Inslee called on lawmakers to pass a proposal to require utilities to provide carbon-free electricity by 2045. Another major effort he called for in his speech is a measure to implement a clean fuel standard that requires fuel producers and importers to reduce the carbon emissions associated with transportation fuels.

Inslee implored lawmakers to expedite clean energy efforts, saying “we need to do more, do it bigger and do it faster.”

“So when your grandchildren ask what you did to protect them from climate change, you can tell them you weren’t sitting around saying it was someone else’s problem,” he said. “You took action.”

On the issue of mental health, Inslee echoed bipartisan calls for reform in the system.

“We need to transform behavioral health from a system that responds to crisis to one that helps people before they reach crisis,” he said.

Mental health reform and funding is an area that the governor and lawmakers in both parties have said needs to be a top priority this year. That includes addressing concerns at Western State Hospital, an 850-plus bed facility in Lakewood that has been plagued with problems and has lost its certification by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and federal funding after it repeatedly failed health and safety inspections.

Inslee said that the state must expand the professional workforce in behavioral health, and must find room for patients at community-based facilities.

He said he’s pursuing a new partnership with the University of Washington to create a teaching hospital to serve patients and train providers.

House and Senate Republicans planned to hold a news conference in the afternoon to give their response to the speech.

Citing the case of a mother orca who triggered international sympathy last summer when she kept the body of her dead calf afloat in waters for 17 days, Inslee said the state must make “unprecedented investments” to save the ailing orca population.

“We saw a mother’s grief. We felt it,” he said.

With the recent discovery of a new orca calf, the population has increased to 75, but it’s still the lowest number since the 1970s. Two other orcas are known to be sick, and researchers fear they could die within months.

The southern resident population of orcas that live in the waters between Washington state and Canada differ from some of the other orca populations in eating primarily salmon, rather than seals or other marine mammals.

Inslee said that the actions that need to be taken to “restore the balance of the ecosystem” that supports the orcas include increasing salmon stocks, fixing culverts and decreasing vessel traffic.

Even though long-running court case over the adequacy of education funding in Washington state has ended, Inslee says there is more to do on education.

He stressed a focus on early learning, and said that his budget proposal last month would expand pre-school with a new ‘birth to 3’ program. He also called for a plan that would offer new parents home visits from a nurse in the first few weeks after the birth of a child.

“For anyone who cares about equity in education, early learning is the best way to secure a strong start for every child, regardless of their family’s economic circumstances,” he said.

Inslee also focused on the idea of apprenticeships and paid internships for students who high school students who don’t go the four-year college route.

Inslee didn’t mention special education in his speech, something lawmakers have said will need to be addressed this session. Inslee’s budget proposals last month called for a $146 million increase in spending on special education in the next two-year budget.

Also not mentioned in his speech was his call for the Legislature to pass nearly $4 billion in new revenue to pay for some of his proposals, including a new capital gains tax.

House and Senate Republicans held a news conference following the speech, saying that while they agreed that the Legislature needs to address some of the issues highlighted by the governor — particularly mental health — they said his address amounted to a wish list.

“It’s difficult sometimes to have serious conversations about only one side of the ledger if you only talk about the spending without talking about how it’s going to be paid for,” said Rep. Drew Stokesbary, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, echoed the frustration.

“One can only assume that if he wants more money to do more things that it will mean he will need to get more money from taxpayers,” she said.

The session, which began Monday, is scheduled to run through April 28.

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