Q&A: Gov. Jay Inslee talks policing, housing and his final year

In a Crosscut interview, the governor ties his legislative priorities to one question: What kind of Washington do we want to leave for our grandchildren?

Gov. Inslee sitting in front of an American flag

Gov. Jay Inslee interviewed by Crosscut’s Paris Jackson on Jan. 4, 2024. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Gov. Jay Inslee says his work as governor is not finished, and he’s going to dive into the next year to keep the momentum going on issues ranging from the environment to policing to mental health. 

In an interview with Crosscut in his office a few days before the 2024 legislative session began, the governor talked about the policies he still wants to pursue and tied his priorities back to one of his chief motivations: What kind of Washington do we want to leave for our grandchildren and all the future residents of this state?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Prefer the audio version? Listen to the Crosscut Reports episode.

Crosscut: We are just a couple of days into the new year. Do you have any New Year’s resolutions or intentions as you’re looking at this final year in office?

Inslee: I’ve decided to really have a difficult resolution, which is to be gracious and humble when the Huskies win the national championship over Michigan and help my fellow Gov. Gretchen Whitmer get through her loss. So that’s my resolution and I’m sticking to it. 

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee looks on as workers finish raising the Washington flag before the national championship NCAA College Football Playoff game between Washington and Michigan on the first day of the legislative session at the Washington state Capitol Monday, Jan. 8, 2024 in Olympia. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

One cornerstone of your time in office has been the environment, before you were governor and as an elected official. What do you wish the general public would understand about the urgency of the world’s ecological challenges?

I think the large majority of Washingtonians do have an understanding of it, in part because you’re now experiencing it. I’m not sure you could say that 10 years ago, but now Washingtonians have a situation where their kids can’t go out and play because of the forest fire smoke. They’ve seen Medical Lake, a whole town, burn down last summer. They’re seeing salmon stocks disappearing in part because of water temperature issues. And they’re seeing their children have asthma because of pollution from burning gas and oil. They’re seeing incredible flooding events. So I think the vast majority of Washingtonians actually do now understand that this is not something that’s just for grandchildren, we’re experiencing it right now.

And unfortunately, this is the tip of the iceberg; it’s going to become much more dramatic over the long term. So the good news is that people are now seeing what is coming. And this is just the opening act of climate change.

So I think that’s why they’re asking for action. They’re committed to do what we do in our state, which is to innovate and create a new future around clean energy. They’re now using new insulation and heat pumps. They’re using free bus rides for kids. We’re using our heads so that we can save our hearts – our children. And I believe Washington is very committed to that.

You’ve alluded to some of the things we are doing here in the state. Are we making enough progress to adopt more of these climate-friendly technologies? Not only here, of course, but across the nation?

We are moving faster than the rest of the nation. We arguably have the best climate and clean energy policies in the United States, in part because they focus on equity as well so that communities of poverty who’ve been choking on the most pollution get the most help. On the good side, we’re doing very meaningful things. We have a commitment to 100% clean energy. We have a low carbon fuel standard. We have the best building standards in the United States. We’re going to make sure people get access to heat pumps. We have a Climate Commitment Act that is now generating funds that go back to Washingtonians instead of just going into the $200 billion profits of the oil companies. 

The site for Puget Sound Energy's new Tacoma LNG Facility on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. PSE is the state’s top emitter of greenhouse gasses with 5.6 million tons. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

So we have all those really active things. That’s good news. But we have to continue to accelerate our progress, to get to that 100% clean energy goal which we’ve established, there will need to be some additional action, additional investment. And we’re planning to do those things. We’re bringing on electric ferryboats so passengers don’t have to breathe that diesel smoke. We’re bringing on electric vehicles and charging stations. The price of these is coming down very dramatically.

Two companies in Moses Lake are building the world’s best battery that can increase the range of electric cars from 20 to 50%. So we’ve got all those good things happening. But we need to make sure that they happen faster. This is a race. This is a race between us and pollution. And I’m committed that we’re going to win this race because our kids deserve this. I just can’t believe that we’re going to allow our grandchildren to have no ice on Mount Rainier, no salmon in the river and not be able to go out and play because the forest fire smoke is so terrible. I can’t believe that’s an acceptable future for us.

One thing you’re proposing is utility rebates for low- and middle-income Washingtonians. Is one year of those rebates enough to make up for energy cost increases?

Well, it’s something that’s meaningful. It will help two million Washingtonians. It’s not insignificant to have $200 a family to help, but perhaps that should be permanent. But there are two ways to help people with the economic consequences of anything that we do. One is cash. And the utility credit is in a sense cash. But the other is to get people equipment, services and resources to replace the need to buy fossil fuels. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re getting our children free bus rides. So now you’re a family member, you got kids on a team, you don’t have to pay for their transportation. We’re getting people solar panels.

I met an orchard worker in Toppenish the other day who got solar panels on their roof. Her utility bill is now zero for her family. Now that’s different than cash, but it has the same benefit. Because it can save you money over the long run, getting people more charging stations, getting schools electric school buses right now, so they don’t have to buy old, dirty, stinky buses. And here’s an important one: Our schools are having a problem with air quality, because the smoke from forest fires is becoming so dangerous. So we’re getting them filtration systems so our kids can have cleaner air to breathe. All of these things are helpful, economically as well as health-related.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee leaves with wife Trudi Inslee, left, after a legislative session preview in the Cherberg Building at the Capitol Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024 in Olympia. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

And fundamentally, this is a health issue. There was a report two, three days ago showing 16 Washington communities have had such respiratory disease associated with fossil fuel pollution that their average life span is two and a half years shorter than the rest of the state of Washington. Think about what that means: You’re losing your loved ones two and a half years earlier. My point is the Climate Commitment Act is helping people in a lot of ways, not just cash.

That’s a perfect segue to speaking about the Climate Commitment Act. Critics are arguing that these utility rebates are your attempt to buy favor with voters. How do you respond?

I’m not sure we’re buying anything. First off, I’m not running for office again. So it’s not something I have to worry about. We’re doing this to try to buy health for people. This is fundamentally a health issue. It is about pollution. And one of the things I think people have forgotten [is] what this act is called. It is the Climate Commitment Act. It is about limiting pollution. And fundamentally, the most important thing that this does is to reduce the amount of pollution that our children and we are breathing. That’s the No. 1 goal. And it is working on that, because it no longer is going to let the oil companies have $200 billion in profits and pollute willy-nilly as much as they want.

It finally gives Washingtonians what they deserve, which is a limit on the amount of pollution that’s going into the sky. So we think that has value. Sometimes other people in the Republican Party don’t think that has value. I think when a person doesn’t die prematurely, that has value to us. So that’s what we’re – quote – “buying.” And that is a worthwhile investment – the investment is in kids, so if they have clean air in their school room, that is a worthwhile investment. People also are struggling, particularly at the lower end of our economic situation; it is the right thing to do to help them in many ways. We’re helping them with this utility proposal, we’re helping them with free transportation for their kids, we’re helping them to get additional insulation and solar panels. We’re helping them in all kinds of different ways.

You’re providing a long list of benefits here in the state. And some are saying: but gas prices are tough, they’re high, I can’t afford to fill my tank. In what ways do you respond to that pain at the pump?

Essentially by looking at the reality of what has happened. Gas prices came down $1.50 in the months right before this was adopted, they came down, they did not go up. They actually came down just before this was adopted. And since October, they have come down another dollar – a full dollar.

People have hated gas prices since they invented the Model T. But since this has been adopted, they actually have come down dramatically by $1. And yes, there are some compliance costs for the oil companies. We always knew that there would be some compliance cost of this. And we want to bring those compliance costs down. This does sound a little technical, but by linking our carbon markets with California and Quebec, we think this will have an opportunity to reduce the compliance costs to help in that regard. 

We’re making an investment for our kids. And that’s what we do, we invest in their schools, and now we’re investing in their air so that they can breathe. And I just don’t believe Washington state is a state that wants to go backwards in our fight against pollution.

I also think we need a little more fairness for consumers. When it comes to oil companies, they have had over $200 billion of profits while they’ve increased some of our gas prices. We need to get to the bottom of this to see if we’re being gouged. And that’s where we have a bill that will bring transparency to this to really find out what’s going on. But also fundamentally, we want to drive gas prices down to zero. Because that’s what you have to pay when you have an electric car.

Switching gears, let’s talk about housing and affordability. What are some of the next things our state and local governments can do to make Washington a place where many of us – all of us, for that matter – can afford to live and raise our families?

Well, the largest thing we can do is build housing. Because this is the most fundamental problem. Homelessness is largely a housing crisis. We do not have enough housing units for our people. And when you have a million people move into your state, like we’ve had in the last decade and a half, but you only build 300,000 housing units, you’re going to get homelessness. So we fundamentally have to find a way to build more housing units.

There’s a variety of things we can and are doing. We’re making significant public investments –  up to $900 million in the last session of the Legislature – so we can build more housing. Housing doesn’t come out of, you know, the tooth fairy. You’ve got to build it, you’ve got to have a way to finance it. That doesn’t mean the public’s actually doing the work; the private sector is doing the building.

We do need additional public investment to get people into housing, as well. We’ve removed 32 encampments off our highway right-of-ways. But we’re out of money on the right-of-way initiative to continue to move people into housing. We need to restock, so I’ve asked for $100 million to keep that ball rolling.

We also need to accelerate the ability to build housing, which means we need to accelerate the time it takes to get a permit. And that’s why I’m glad we passed a bill last year to accelerate the permitting. And we have to have additional places to build housing. So we need to continue the reform effort in our zoning laws. So we have more places to build. Now, in addition to housing, a lot of folks who are homeless – not all but many – have chemical addiction problems, many have mental health challenges. And we have to make sure the services are available for those people when we get them into housing, so they don’t relapse and go right back on the street. And that means getting chemical addiction treatment, mental health treatment for him, that has to be part of the solution. 

Western State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital founded in 1871, located in Lakewood, Washington, photographed June 21, 2018. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

We have proposed over $400 million of behavioral health. It’s a fairly massive new investment. It’s needed. And as this is not just for homeless folks, obviously, I mean families that have a 15-year-old in a mental health crisis, we need to get those young people healthy. They shouldn’t have to wait eight months to get in. We have all kinds of people in all of our families who have been touched by mental health challenges. So we need substantial investment in the number of people doing this work and the places they can do the work, from walk-in clinics to residential care..

Governor, let’s talk about legislative privilege. Some members of the Legislature have been claiming for years that they have legislative privilege and they want to keep their emails, their documents and a list of other things away from the public. You have not claimed your legal right to an executive privilege. Has your opinion changed on legislative privilege?

Speaking from my house, which is the executive branch, I’m not trying to dictate to the legislative branch. What I have found is that you can operate and still have transparency. We have found that not claiming an executive privilege can be effective. We’re still able to do business. We’re still able to have communication. We have found a way to make that work. I, frankly, as a former legislator, think that’s possible in a legislative context as well. But that’s something for them to handle, not the executive branch.

Let’s talk about the upcoming election. Do you think Washington should consider keeping presidential candidates who have been credibly accused of starting an insurrection off the primary ballot?

I think this is a decision for the judicial branch. This is a decision for our courts to decide. I don’t think it should be for politicians, like myself, it should be for judges who can judge the facts, who can judge whether a person was engaged in an insurgency and whether their office is included under the 14th Amendment. Those are decisions I’m confident will be made. I can’t tell you which way they will be made. But I think that the Supreme Court will have to ferret out that decision.

I think there’s a lot of evidence in this case that there was someone engaged in a conspiracy or an insurgency, but that needs to be decided in the courts and I’m confident it will be. Then we’re going to need to respect the judicial decision, pro or con. And I think we need to be committed to that, because that’s fundamental to our democracy, which I believe is in threat, because we have a person now that fundamentally doesn’t want to respect the will of the voters. That’s a threat. And I hope we can surmount it.

A couple of days before Christmas, news came out about the Manny Ellis case. The officers accused of his death were acquitted. This trial was the first under state authority to prosecute police for misconduct. My question to you is, what have we learned in these cases where we are seeing Black and brown and low-income communities disproportionately impacted by these incidents?

I think we’ve learned that it’s really important to have a credible investigation to start with. I asked for that investigation to take place, we now have an independent investigative agency to do that independently. They are not police officers, but an independent source. I think this has demonstrated the wisdom of insisting upon a truly independent investigation, to get the facts as best as you can ascertain them. I think that the police accountability laws that were embraced here were appropriate. We have learned that when jurors make a decision, somebody’s unhappy. I’ve been a trial lawyer for long enough to know that. 

A woman walks past a mural honoring Manuel "Manny" Ellis, Thursday, May 27, 2021, in the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma, Wash., south of Seattle. Ellis died on March 3, 2020 after he was restrained by police officers. Earlier in the day Thursday, the Washington state attorney general filed criminal charges against three police officers in the death of Ellis, who told the Tacoma officers who were restraining him he couldn't breathe before he died. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

But I don’t think that the Ellis case displays, at least in my view, that somehow we should give up on the judicial system. The jurors made a decision. They heard the evidence, there were some questions about the wisdom of some of the trial court’s evidentiary rulings that are controversial. I may not have made the same decision. But we have to have a process. And we had one here. And I know people who were not satisfied. But I think we are heading in the right direction to make sure we have more independent assessment of police conduct here. That’s what we need.

One of the other things we need to do is to continue our effort to have better training for our law enforcement officials, to teach them de-escalation techniques to have more rational discussion with citizens rather than violence. Teach them how to work with the mental health professionals, so you get people mental health treatment when they need it in times of distress. And I’m pleased to say we’re doing that. We’re opening two new criminal justice training centers.

Let’s talk about the environmental impact of the cap-and-invest program in our state. How do we help the public understand the importance of this particular program?

We make sure they all read Crosscut … right before you have breakfast every morning. Just trying to disseminate the science is the best way to do this. I think we do well when we make decisions based on science. We had a relatively successful fight with COVID because we made decisions based on science, not on ideology. I think the same is true in climate change. We’re making decisions based on science. But I have to tell you, I think we’re almost moving into a new phase of the discussion about climate change, because it is no longer just a hypothetical graph on a chart.

I remember the first day when I brought Al Gore to Congress, to show members of Congress – this was 20 years ago – to show them the science behind this subject. And you know, he was chockablock with graphs. And he’s right. He’s brilliant on this subject. But we’re moving beyond that. We’re now in the age of consequence; we used to be in the age of prediction. We’re experiencing these things in real time.

When a person is standing in the middle of the ashes that was their home, it’s not a matter of a graph. It’s a tragedy, and that’s what we’re experiencing now. So I think it’s a new level of understanding that is happening. I remember going to see a fire a few years ago in a really nice little suburban area in western or northwestern Wenatchee, and this couple was standing in the middle of the ash, just hugging and she was bawling. This is happening time and time again and we cannot accept that. I’ve seen it firsthand time and time again as a governor. And I want to eliminate that. 

Let’s lighten things up a bit. Just a couple of days from now, your alma mater is going to take to the field against Michigan. I’m not sure if you’re a gambling or betting man, but if you could throw out what you anticipate that final score will be, governor, what do you think? How are the Huskies gonna come out? 

Well, it’s just gonna shock you that I think the Huskies are gonna be on top. I don’t know that much about the Michigan team. But I gotta tell you, this Husky team, you know, they have some secret out there. That’s, I think, a combination of their resilience. And they all talk about how they love each other. There might be somebody looking out for them on the divine side, too. You never know. But it’s hard not to believe in them pulling this out. I’m looking forward to a tremendous game. It’s been quite a ride, and it’s gonna be a must-watch game. 

Before we wrap this up, I’ve read that you consider this time right now as your fourth quarter. Is there anything left undone? Of course, you still have the whole year. But is there anything that you still hope and dream that you just want to get done?

I’m as excited today as on the first day. Now maybe you think that’s a cliche, but it’s true. I literally feel as excited as the first day I took this office, because there’s still thousands of people I can help in the next 12 months. I can help those families who have a teenager in crisis get help. I can help somebody whose brother has been homeless for years because they have a chemical addiction problem get off the street. I can help in the public safety arena. And I can certainly help our kids to have a future. So they don’t have a diminished Washington state and they’re not breathing smoke all the time. This is a very lucky position I’m in to be able to help people. It is a blessing. Not everybody gets up every morning and figures out how can I help somebody? It’s a wonderful thing.

Is there stuff left to be done? Yes. After I’m gone, there will still be the common cold to defeat and still more football games to win. But we’ve had a heck of a run this last decade – a time, I would argue, of unparalleled progress for the state of Washington: the best family leave policy, protecting women’s choice, gun safety, highest minimum wage, best financial aid package so people can get to school, the McCleary decision on financing schools, huge transportation efforts. Now we have to make sure all of those continue. And that’s why I’ll be real active this next year.

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