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New poll shows mental health, homelessness top list of WA voter concerns

Asked what the state Legislature should accomplish this session, respondents identified social services as a high priority, while climate change and orcas lagged.

Washington state's Capitol building in Olympia on June 14, 2017. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

When the Washington state Legislature convenes Monday, it faces a litany of issues that have dominated headlines over the past year. And with a strong majority of Democrats in both the lower and upper houses of the Legislature, as well as a Democrat in the governor’s mansion, there are expectations that Olympia will be a place of action this year. But what action should the legislature take?

According to the most recent Crosscut/Elway Poll, which surveyed 502 registered Washington voters across the state, addressing social service needs is the top priority.

Respondents were asked to identify what issues they felt the Legislature must address this session, an open-ended question. In response, 27 percent included issues that are traditionally associated with social service, including mental health and homelessness.

The result represents a sea change for this portion of the poll, which is asked before every Legislative session. For the four years prior, education had been the top priority, likely a result of the Legislature's long struggle to fulfill a court-ordered mandate to fully fund education. The matter was settled last year. Prior to 2014, the economy was the top issue for voters living through the Great Recession.

Asked more specifically about possible legislative agenda items, 86 percent of respondents said that they believe improving the state’s mental health system should be a high priority. Thirteen percent thought mental health should be a low priority, or not one at all.

The poll has a plus-minus 4.5 percent margin of error.

Legislative attention to mental illness would address a widespread challenge. About one in five adults and teens have dealt with mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. One in 25 adults have had to cope with a mental illness serious enough to interfere with a major life activity, NAMI says.

The state’s largest mental health facility, Western State Hospital, has made headlines after receiving criticism from the Washington Supreme Court and federal inspectors for not having enough beds, stashing untreated patients in jails, inmate assaults on staff members and problems with the building.

In his budget proposal, released last month, Gov. Jay Inslee sought to address the problems with the system by proposing that the state spend $675 million in 2019-2021 to create hundreds of community mental health beds and join with the University of Washington to create a teaching hospital concentrating on mental health. Inslee said he wants to shut down the civil wards at Western State and Eastern State mental hospitals as a move to create community mental health beds.

In keeping with their focus on social issues, 70 percent of respondents identified affordable housing as a high priority for the Legislature. A number of respondents interviewed after the poll was conducted linked homelessness to a lack of mental health resources. 

“It’s becoming more and more prevalent,” said Randy of Lacey, who declined to let his last name be used. “It’s really more of a state issue than a city issue.”

“It seems to be a problem throughout the region. It seems to be spreading like a disease,” said Dustin of Mount Vernon, who also declined to have his last name used.

Washington’s recent rash of wildfires also elicited calls for action, as 73 percent of respondents said that “preventing or controlling” the fires should be a high priority for the legislature. Twenty-six percent said they believed it should be a low priority or not a priority at all.

Other environmental issues did not receive the same level of support.

When asked about the Legislature’s role in combating climate change, only 52 percent said it should be a high priority, while 28 percent believe it should be a low priority. Seventeen percent said it should not be a priority at all.

Those numbers were nearly identical to the response to “saving orcas in Puget Sound.”

Fifty-two percent wanted to make orca recovery a top priority, while 35 percent said it should be a low priority. Ten percent said it should not be a priority at all.

Inslee has said that he wants to increase Puget Sound’s southern resident orcas from 74 to 84 by 2028. He proposes increasing hatchery production of salmon, creating a moratorium on watching killer whales, setting up speed and buffer zone around orcas, and tackling pollution in Puget Sound.

His most controversial idea is having the Legislature set up a task force to determine what would happen to Chinook salmon — the prime food for underfed orcas — and the economy, farming, barging and power production in Eastern Washington if the four Lower Snake Rivers dams are removed. Tribes, environmental organizations and many Western Washingtonians support this idea.

Meanwhile, Washingtonians throughout the state appear leery of any new taxes materializing in the upcoming session, according to the poll. That includes Gov. Jay Inslee’s battery of tax proposals — including the implementation of a capital gains tax and an increase in the business-and-occupation tax for service business — as well as a carbon emissions tax, which is not currently being discussed but has been considered in the past. 

Fifty-three percent of respondents said they oppose Inslee’s proposed capital gains tax, while 44 percent supported the idea. State government estimates say only the wealthiest 1.5 percent of Washington’s residents would be affected by a 9 percent tax on earnings of more than $25,000 for individuals and $50,000 for couples from the sale of stocks, bonds or some other assets. Inslee's proposal, if passed, is forecast to raise $975 million in the 2019-2021 budget biennium.

Republican lawmakers are firmly against this tax, arguing that it is a type of income tax, which is an anathema to many Washington citizens. Democrats frame a capital gains tax as a tax on a financial transaction — meaning it is an excise tax. If Democrats manage to pass such a tax, it will likely face a court challenge.

Inslee also proposed an increase in the business-and-occupation tax on service businesses from 1.5 percent of gross receipts to 2.5 percent. This proposed tax would cover service businesses such as attorneys, accountants, architects, janitorial services and beauticians. It is predicted to raise $2.6 billion over two years. 

Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they oppose the tax increase. Thirty-seven percent said they support it. 

A tax on carbon emissions, meanwhile, has conditional support. Twice defeated as ballot initiatives, in 2016 and 2018, a carbon tax was favored by 56 percent of those polled if “it is done right.” Forty-one percent opposed such a carbon tax. However, of those who support such a tax, just 67 percent said they would back the idea if it led to increased gasoline and electric prices.

The question of taxes looms as legislators prepare for the session. Democrats have the largest legislative majorities this decade — 28-21 in the Senate and 57-41 in the House — which means they have enough votes even if they lose the support of a few Democrats on these tax matters. How they would use that advantage to raise revenue remains to be seen.

The state government already expects roughly $50.4 billion in revenue to materialize for its operations budget in fiscal 2019-2021. They are also expecting a budget shortfall; 2019 will be the first year that the state is complying with a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling to fully fund basic education. As a result, several billion dollars' worth of education upgrades will be included, bringing predicted spending up to roughly $54.4 billion in 2019-2021. The 2017-19 state operations budget, by comparison, was roughly $44 billion.

The Crosscut/Elway Poll is property of Cascade Public Media.

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New poll shows mental health, homelessness top list of WA voter concerns