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3 takeaways from Gov. Jay Inslee's 'State of the State' address kicking off his final year in office

Washington Governor Jay Inslee is pictured standing at a podium, slightly smiling and looking up, as people clap behind him.
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee gave his final State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, highlighting policy wins during his time as governor and urging lawmakers to continue making progress on key problems plaguing the state.

Insisting it wasn't a "farewell speech," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee gave his annual State of the State address Tuesday. It was the final time he'd give the annual speech before Washington voters elect a new governor – and a suite of other statewide positions – later this year.

Inslee, who is the country's longest serving governor currently in office, deemed Washington the strongest state in the nation, citing the state's population and economic growth, and called it a "beacon of progress" on environmental protections, health care, and housing. But he also urged legislators to keep up the momentum on those issues, telling the Legislature its work isn't done yet – and using a sports analogy to make his point about a strong finish.

"Run through the tape," he said, recalling a tip his track-coach dad gave to runners. "He wanted to make sure his runners wouldn't let up before the race was over."

Here are some takeaways from Inslee's speech, and the response from legislative leaders:

1. A victory lap – and look ahead – on prized policies

In addition to pressing lawmakers to keep moving forward on key topics, Inslee highlighted policy wins throughout his time in office.

A significant portion of the speech was dedicated to climate change and the steps Washington has taken to mitigate pollution and make clean energy jobs and infrastructure more widely available.

It comes as a major priority policy for Inslee – the Climate Commitment Act – is under pressure from a Republican-backed initiative effort that is aiming to convince enough voters to repeal the law.

Inslee also praised changes lawmakers have made to better fund education, lower the cost of prescription drugs, and move homeless people living in encampments into more stable housing. He also highlighted recent changes to the state's gun laws – including an assault weapons ban that took several tries to pass.

2. Praise from Democrats, pushback from the GOP

Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate share many of Inslee's same priorities, and have painted a similarly optimistic picture about the state's progress, even in the face of problems they agree still need urgent attention. Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-Spokane) said the governor's speech "sets the tone and stage" for the legislative session that began this week.

Meanwhile, Republicans have struck a much different tone, pointing to a number of challenges in areas they say have gotten worse under Inslee's administration, including crime and public safety, educational achievement for students, and affordability for housing and child care.

"The state of our state is strong thanks to the hard work, heart, and spirit of the people of Washington," said Sen. Nikki Torres (R-Pasco), who gave the Republican response to Inslee's speech. "But on a number of important issues, our government has let our great people down."

Leaders in the Republican party say they still have hope to "fix Washington," but that it's their job to point out where they see partisan policies falling short for their constituents.

"We're going in the wrong direction, and our belief is that we're going in the wrong direction because of policies put in place by the Democratic majorities," said Senate Republican Leader John Braun (R-Centralia), who noted specific concerns about the state's approach to climate change and police accountability.

But Republican and Democratic leaders agreed on at least one thing: Both say the state needs more police officers.

3. A nod to abortion policy ahead of the 2024 elections

In the final minutes of Inslee's speech, he renewed his calls for the Legislature to amend the state constitution to keep abortion rights secure in Washington.

"We need to enshrine reproductive freedom in our constitution and pass a constitutional amendment protecting the right of choice this year," he said.

But it's an uphill battle. A measure to do it failed to move forward in the Legislature last year. And while Democrats still support the idea, it would take a two-thirds majority in both chambers to pass – and House Republican Leader Drew Stokesbary (R-Auburn) says he and many of his colleagues see the issue as already settled in Washington.

"The constitutional amendment is superfluous. Abortion rights aren't under threat in Washington – the only people saying they are, are Democrats," Stokesbary said.

Even for Republicans who might support abortion access, it's proven to be a partisan wedge issue. Still, abortion rights remain a rallying cry for Democrats, and with House lawmakers' seats up for re-election – and several in the Senate running for various higher offices this year – it's likely to continue being an issue put to Washington voters on the campaign trail.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.