OLYMPIA — Washington is moving toward a “new normal” that will be more equitable, better prepared for climate change and have more opportunities for housing and careers, Gov. Jay Inslee told the Legislature on Wednesday.
In a pre-recorded video shown to a virtual joint session of the Legislature, Inslee delivered his third inaugural address, touting big ideas, but few specifics, for moving the state through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The video featured Inslee speaking, as well as photos of the capitol during non-pandemic times. His speech came shortly after statewide elected officials were sworn in, some in-person and some remotely. Inslee, donning a mask, took his oath in person in a room not open to the public.
“We are on a path in this legislative session to a more just normal, a healthier normal,” Inslee said. “And we’re not just talking about the pandemic.”
Throughout his speech, Inslee remained optimistic about the state’s future, praising Washington residents for the work they’ve done since the start of the pandemic. “Washington is a resilient state,” he said. “Washington knows how to recover.”
While Republicans agreed with Inslee’s goals, they disagreed on how to get there. Republicans criticized Inslee for not talking enough about his budget proposals. Inslee has proposed imposing a capital gains tax, as well as a new tax on health care premiums to fund public health, but mentioned neither in his speech.
In the Republican response, Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, criticized Inslee for his use of emergency powers and proclamations since the beginning of the pandemic and said the work of this Legislative session must focus on pandemic relief.
Senate Minority Leader John Braun said it was legitimate to say the governor has overstepped his powers, as he said there was no path for the Legislature to weigh in.
“We cannot undo past decisions, but we can stem the tide,” he said. Stokesbary also called on the Legislature to use $200 million of the Rainy Day Fund to fund grants and rebates for COVID-19 relief. His relief proposal would allocate money for small businesses, schools and rental assistance.
Republicans also criticized Inslee for not mentioning plans for unemployment insurance or the state’s vaccine distribution plan, which Stokesbary called “abysmal.”
In his speech, Inslee said he wants to reduce increases in the unemployment tax on businesses. He also said students will get back into the classroom in a safe and healthy setting, calling on the Legislature to help remediate the effects students have suffered during the pandemic.
“No one has a single answer, but we must provide the supports the students need, whether it’s academics, mental health or nutrition,” he said.
In his proposed budget last month, Inslee pushed for the Legislature to immediately pass pandemic relief to businesses and rental assistance. He didn’t mention any specifics for relief in Wednesday’s speech.
House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox said the Washington Legislature needs to remain “laser focused” on the issues surrounding COVID-19 right now.
“We all believe the Legislature and the governor should all be putting every ounce of efforts into this,” he said.
In his speech last year, Inslee called on lawmakers to fight homelessness with a statewide response. This year, he again called on lawmakers to “stand in solidarity” with people living in unsafe or inadequate housing, and commit to providing mental health or chemical addiction treatment to young people. As tenants and landlords face unprecedented economic challenges in the pandemic, Inslee said “we live in a time of great housing insecurity.”
Inslee called on the Legislature to act on climate change, something he’s done throughout the last eight years as governor. Climate change is creating extremes that “cannot be denied or ignored,” he said.
“Both the virus and climate change have fatal results,” Inslee said. “Both can be solved through science and ingenuity.”
Inslee said the future of the state’s economy will be led by clean and renewable energy, which he said will create jobs and a healthier environment. As part of this, Inslee also called on lawmakers to recommit to the cause of environmental justice, which disproportionately affects disenfranchised communities.
Inslee didn’t go into specifics of his climate change plans, but in his legislative proposals, he has put forward a bill to create a comprehensive climate program that would establish a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, create a climate investment account to support clean transportation and emissions reduction, and analyze policies with a particular focus on how it affects people of color and economically disadvantaged communities. Inslee has pushed in the past for a low-carbon fuel standard for transportation fuel and will continue to do so this year.
Democrats already have outlined climate change as one of their top priorities this legislative session.
Inslee called for incorporating equity into how laws are applied and how institutions are run, ensuring that Washington residents of all backgrounds and communities are included in decisions. He mentioned a police reform proposal for creating an independent investigation and prosecution process, something he has included in his legislative proposals for the session. The police-citizen violence in 2020 “traumatized the nation” and the state needs not only conversations but action, he said.
”We all share this struggle, and we will also reap its benefits,” Inslee said. “Out of the darkness and anxiety of 2020, will come the relief of a new era. Our recovery will be robust and equitable.”