Legislators hear the call, pitch areas for state funding

Mental health care, affordable housing and infrastructure lead the discussion

Layla Jones, a Kent kindergarten teacher, would like to see more counselors at her crowded school.

“It’s really something desperate that we need,” Jones told state Sen. Mona Das, D-Kent, and Rep. Debra Entenman, D-Kent, during a town hall meeting with the District 47 legislators at Green River College on Saturday in Auburn. “Kent has a high-needs population … many kids come (to school) with trauma … and we struggle to meet their needs.”

Chris Cooper, development director for HealthPoint, urges the Legislature to commit funding to address mental health issues and the opioid crisis in the community.

Richard Johnson, a Kent resident, wants to see more affordable housing options and innovative funding streams to support the state that is heavily reliant on property tax revenue.

“Homeowners are exhausted about taxation,” he said.

Funding for education, housing, infrastructure projects and a cleaner environment dominated discussion among residents and the first-year legislators at the gathering.

Funding comes at a good time for the state. Washington’s projected Near General Fund revenue collections for the 2019-21 state budget have increased by nearly $554 million, according to estimates released March 20 by the Washington State Economic and Revenue Forecast Council.

Total revenues are projected at nearly $50.6 billion for the next two-year state budget cycle, which begins July 1. The new forecast comes as the Legislature begins final deliberations on the 2019-21 state operating, capital and transportation budgets. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn April 28.

The district’s third legislator, Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, and the Democratic Majority Leader of the state House, was in transportation budget negotiations Saturday and was unable to attend the town hall meeting.

As both chambers examine budget proposals this week in Olympia, Das and Entenman said many of their constituents’ funding requests have been heard and are part of the state’s 2019-21 operating budget plan.

For Cooper and HighPoint, a nonprofit health care network that serves 90,000 people in King County, and other providers, that means $1 million to fund essential services.

Issues of mental health care, housing affordability and homelessness have received an intensified look in the 2019 Legislature. Senate Democrats even adopted a structure that includes two new committees that prioritize these areas – the Housing Stability & Affordability Committee, and a Behavioral Health Subcommittee.

To confront homelessness, Das added that one of the bills she supported this session calls for eviction reform, which allows tenants 14 days to respond to eviction notices instead of three days.

Lawmakers recognize that housing affordability is at a crossroads and are looking for ways to reduce evictions and find ways to provide cheaper housing opportunities.

Das also sponsored a Senate-approve bill that would help limit the costs of affordable housing by exempting self-help housing organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, from the state’s real estate excise tax. The bill passed on a vote of 46 to 2 and now heads to the House for consideration.

The bill would affect about 30 self-help housing organizations that operate throughout Washington.

In this model, homebuyers participate in the construction of their new homes.

“These organizations help Washingtonians end the cycle of generational poverty,” Das said. “We have a growing homelessness crisis in our state. And while this bill won’t solve the whole problem, it will help hard-working people own their own homes.”

Das said the state budget’s emphasis reflects those of Gov. Jay Inslee’s priorities to fund and improve the state’s behavioral health system, protecting the environment, the state’s struggling orca and salmon populations, while continuing to provide crucial resources in education from early learning through college, as well as special education.

Community and technical college leaders also would like to see the state arrive at a long-term financial fix to improve and build programs, buildings and staffing.

Entenman, who serves as vice chair of the College & Workforce Development committee, said legislators will continue to find ways and a strategy to better support those schools.

Of the many transportation projects proposed, Das said, a 7-mile stretch of Highway 18 that stretches from Issaquah/Hobart Road to the Raging River has been put into the budget. That section of state Route 18 has been a trouble spot fraught with congestion and accidents.

Of the bills Das has proposed this season, she said she is most proud of the one that would reduce pollution by prohibiting retailers in Washington state from handing out single-use plastic bags. Grocers would be able to provide paper bags or durable, reusable plastic bags for 8 cents each. This charge would help retailers recover the costs of the paper or durable plastic bags, and create an incentive for shoppers to bring their own bags.

“The whole point of this bill is to bring your own bag,” Das said. “Please, get ready, and start saving those bags.”