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Gov. Inslee leans into housing and homelessness in 2023 State of the State address

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Tom Banse
/
NW News Network
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee walks through the Capitol building in Olympia, en route to deliver his annual State of the State address, Jan. 10, 2023.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee emphasized housing construction and homelessness response during his 2023 State of the State address on Tuesday. The issue is a bipartisan priority for the state Legislature, but approaches differ among the lawmakers who convened in Olympia this week.

Inslee opened the governor's annual policy address to a joint session of the Legislature with his typical optimistic tone. "The state of our state is strong," he declared. He proceeded to focus on a handful of core issues, providing a preview of hot topics the Legislature will pick up this session: housing costs, mental health and addiction treatment, guns, education and abortion.

The third-term Democrat touted his idea to ask Washington voters in November to authorize $4 billion in new borrowing, to be used over the next six years to accelerate affordable housing construction, supportive housing for people leaving chronic homelessness and to increase mental health and addiction treatment capacity.

"I believe the people are with us on this. Let's go big. Let's get this done this session,” Inslee said to applause.

Inslee said that Washington is currently short 81,000 housing units and that the state needs another million over the next 17 years.

“Again, until we fix our housing crisis, thousands of people will remain homeless,” Inslee said.

Republicans expressed deep skepticism about borrowing and spending so much money for solutions they said aren't delivering confidence-inspiring results.

“For years, the governor and his (Democratic) majority have spent billions of dollars on housing programs while housing accessibility and affordability have only worsened,” said state Rep. Peter Abbarno of Centralia, during the GOP’s televised response to the State of the State address.

“More housing could help reduce the rate of homelessness,” Abbarno said, signaling that the two parties agree on the underlying diagnosis, but not the future course of treatment.

During a subsequent GOP press conference, the opposition party’s legislative leadership proposed to “go back to basics” for starters by streamlining permitting, and loosening energy codes and limits on urban sprawl to make it cheaper for private developers to build.

Both parties in the Legislature support a proposal to change zoning at the statewide level to encourage denser housing in cities to open up more housing options. This concept carries the nickname “Missing Middle” housing. It would override single-family zoning in neighborhoods to allow duplexes and townhomes on residential lots. A similar Missing Middle proposal was debated for much of the last session in Olympia but failed in the end, while in Oregon it passed two years ago and is being implemented this year.

Guns and public safety also top of mind

The biggest applause line for Inslee during this year’s State of the State speech came on a subsequent topic, gun control. Inslee talked up a proposal put forward by himself, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Seattle-area Democrats to ban the sale of most semi-automatic rifles. He also endorsed two other measures to allow lawsuits against gun manufacturers and to create a permit-to-purchase system that would include a 10-day waiting period for prospective gun buyers and require them to take a safety course.

“We owe our children the assurance we’re doing all we can to keep them safe. Let’s pass all three bills and prove to them that the gun lobby doesn't make the rules in Washington state. We do,” Inslee said, drawing a standing ovation from Democrats in the chamber while Republicans sat on their hands.

The opposition party argues that an assault weapons ban would violate gun rights guaranteed in the state constitution and represents “a waste of taxpayer’s time and money,” in the words of Republican state Rep. Jim Walsh of Aberdeen.

A new Crosscut/Elway Poll that surveyed voters statewide on the eve of the legislative session found 57% in favor of outlawing the sale or transfer of most semi-automatic rifles with 39% opposed. This year’s push to pass gun safety legislation comes in the wake of an Election Day shooting at Ingraham High School in Seattle that left one student dead.

In the GOP response to the state of the state speech, Abbarno pivoted to another aspect of public safety to blast the record of the governor and Democratic majority. He took aim at Washington’s police reforms passed in 2021 in the wake of racial justice protests and the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.

“Every one of us in the past few years has either been a victim of crime, or knows someone who has,” Abbarno said. “From property crimes, to violent crimes, many communities are just not safe, or don’t feel safe.”

Republicans contend Washington has the fewest law enforcement personnel per capita of any U.S. state. FBI data and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs confirm that.

“The 2021 anti-police bills supported by the governor and his party had disastrous consequences,” Abbarno said in his televised speech. “While the Legislature addressed some of those issues last year, critical work remains, including restoring the ability for law enforcement to pursue suspects in their vehicles; the need to recruit, train, and retain new officers; and provide law enforcement the necessary tools to keep us all safe.”

Washington state lawmakers will spend the next three and a half months debating and voting. Democrats have a solid 58 to 40 majority in the state House and also control the state Senate, 29-20. The House in particular, though, has a large cohort of freshman members – 23 out of 98 – which makes prognosticating the outcome of some hot topics dicey at this juncture without a track record to go on.

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.