Commentary: Progress on behavioral health requires more cooperation, less conflict


From 2013 through 2017, Republicans led our state Senate and Democrats had the majority in the House. While it lasted, that break in one-party control of Olympia was good for the people of our state.

Together we passed budgets balanced without general tax increases, the landmark overhaul of the state’s K-12 funding system and what is probably the most equitable package of transportation projects in state history.

The fact that Republicans shared control of the legislative branch also delayed Governor Inslee from imposing a capital-gains income tax and his extremist climate policy. (While Democratic legislators ultimately gave Inslee his wish, the unnecessary income tax and the costly “cap-and-tax” policy can and should be repealed by the people of Washington later this year; they just need to pass Initiative 2109 and Initiative 2117.)

As a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, I also witnessed the start of what has now been a decade-long run of strong bipartisan cooperation within the Legislature on responding to behavioral health needs. One of the benefits of that cooperation recently opened in Seattle: the Center for Behavioral Health and Learning. The bill authorizing it was introduced by a former speaker of the House, and won unanimous support from the Senate and House in 2019.

While this $224 million facility will offer bedspace for up to 150 patients — and our state certainly needs the added capacity — it’s even more important from a workforce standpoint. Several years ago we authorized Washington State University to open the state’s second medical school. It came from a desire to respond to the shortage of healthcare providers, especially in rural parts of Washington. The same concept applies here. The demand for behavioral health services across our state is already exceeding the supply, and we need this new training facility to start turning that around.  I’m proud the Legislature’s progress on behavioral health has been so bipartisan, and said as much at the May 15 ribbon-cutting for the UW center — citing three key reasons. First, government exists in part to deliver the services people can’t provide for themselves. We can debate whether those with behavioral-health issues put themselves in the position to need help, but either way, let’s act with compassion. It’s the moral thing to do. And I believe most folks would choose to overcome their behavioral health issues, given the choice. Second, there is obviously a strong tie between behavioral-health issues and public safety — just follow news reports. People can’t walk down the block or ride transit without fearing for their physical wellbeing. That’s not right.

Finally, as a fiscal conservative and someone who knows how the state budget is constructed, I can tell you it is more cost-effective to deliver treatment to someone over a period of months than to incarcerate that same person for years.

Besides helping people in our communities to have a chance at leading a productive, crime-free life, getting them on a better track sooner through treatment can save money that can be devoted to other services people need. Unfortunately, the Legislature only has so much control over addressing behavioral health. We create the policy and provide the funding, but the execution belongs to the executive branch. That’s where Governor Inslee — and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who desperately wants to succeed Inslee — have failed to hold up their end.

In 2018, for example, the governor’s mismanagement cost Western State Hospital, one of the two state-run psychiatric hospitals, its accreditation and $53 million in annual federal support. That same year, Gov. Inslee publicly vowed to “transform the state’s mental health system” by 2023. It didn’t happen, perhaps because the governor got distracted by his crusades to impose an income tax and extremist climate-related agenda. Then again, no one runs for president or gets invited to give speeches in faraway places because of their work on behavioral health. He made a choice, and it wasn’t to stand with those who need access to treatment.

As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, the governor and the attorney general — who is the state’s chief law-enforcement officer — allowed drug havens disguised as homeless encampments to proliferate, adding to the behavioral-health crisis.

In 2021 they both backed the disastrous Democratic social experiment which essentially decriminalized hard drugs in our state. Neither Inslee nor Ferguson would publicly recognize something that seemed obvious to Republicans and others with a lick of common sense: people with addictions often won’t seek treatment unless threatened with the loss of their freedom.

Unfortunately, the policies of the governor, attorney general and their political allies were completely counterproductive. They caused the need for treatment to grow faster than legislators or anyone else could respond. Regardless of the demand, it takes years to build out behavioral health resources, whether at the community level or the state level. Despite the urgency, the UW center couldn’t be constructed in less than five years; in my legislative district, efforts to build a behavioral health treatment facility were delayed significantly by another failure of Inslee’s administration. The governor’s office promised the project wouldn’t get caught up in Inslee’s effort to ban the use of natural gas to heat buildings. That turned out to be false.

Legislators have built a strong bipartisan record of supporting access to behavioral health. Republicans have distinguished themselves by also opposing actions that would add to the demand for treatment. I am especially proud that the new University of Washington center will help create a behavioral health workforce capable of serving all of our state. But we can’t and won’t stop there. Not only must legislators do better; our state also needs a governor and attorney general who will row in the same direction as our branch of government. Inslee and Ferguson have shown themselves to be more concerned about going off in their own self-serving directions.

There are enough conflicts already when it comes to making progress on behavioral health; we could use some partners in the executive branch who will help move the ball forward.

It would be great if Washington voters made behavioral health a factor in choosing among the candidates for governor and attorney general.


Sen. John Braun of Centralia serves the 20th Legislative District, which spans parts of four counties from Yelm to Vancouver. He became Senate Republican leader in 2020.