What kind of a state do we want Washington to be? - Island Forum

By Sen. Brian Weinstein

It's a question lawmakers must keep in mind as we move forward this session. The answer, to me, is that Washington must be a state that creates opportunities for all of its people.

Do we want, for example, to live in a state where deserving students cannot access our state colleges and universities because budget constraints force us to curtail enrollment slots? Or where thousands of children are denied even the most basic health care? Or where our unique environment is not well-preserved for future generations?

That's not the Washington I want to live in, and I know that my neighbors in the 41st Legislative District feel the same.

Our state does some things very well. Recently, Washington has been ranked at or near the top for business environment, economic dynamism and government efficiency. Those are all important measures of a healthy state.

But equally important is providing opportunities for citizens. That's why we need to provide access to world-class public schools. And to a health care system that offers a safety net for our most vulnerable citizens. And to clean air and water for future generations.

There are no better investments in the prosperity of our state than services and programs that leave no resident behind and preserve the unique quality of life we enjoy here.

We all have a stake in the outcome. To support our state's ongoing economic recovery, we need a world-class higher education system that prepares our students for success in the workplace. To foster safe, crime-free communities, we need a health care system that does not leave people untreated and on the streets. To offer our children and grandchildren a healthy future, we need environmental laws that protect our air and water.

The Legislature needs to make smart choices this year if we want to provide the kinds of opportunities that will make our state a place where we all want to live. Several initiatives under consideration this session would go a long way toward making that happen.

The No. 1 investment we can make in our state's future is to create more opportunities for our children. That can be done only by offering every child who wants to go to college a slot in one of our institutions of higher education, and by making sure we have quality higher education opportunities available in every part of the state.

An obvious solution is to add more enrollment slots to the budget, including to our flagship institution, the University of Washington. We owe it to future generations to make that down payment. But more creativity will be needed to avoid the cost of more brick-and-mortar facilities. One proposal would expand the mission of our branch campuses to allow them to offer lower-division courses. We should also begin to look at piloting certain BA degrees offered by community and technical colleges to meet the need for degrees in high-demand fields, such as nursing.

Washington businesses want students who are well-prepared to compete in the global workplace, and they'd prefer not to have to look outside the state to find them. Increasing access to higher education is the surest route to a healthy economy.

A healthy Washington also means one where every citizen has access to health care. Gov. Christine Gregoire has made a good start by rolling back premiums and new policies that would have removed as many as 19,000 children from Medicaid eligibility. We also must boost Medicaid reimbursement rates so doctors alone don't have to bear the burden alone for treating low-income people.

We also are focusing this session on treatment for mental illness. Because an estimated one in five Americans suffers from a mental illness every year, every one of us likely knows someone who has battled a mental illness. Gone untreated, these conditions can worsen, leading to costly trips to the emergency room or to wholly preventable crimes.

In 1999, the U.S. surgeon general estimated the lack of mental health parity -- requiring health insurance policies to cover mental health services just as they do other health services -- cost businesses at least $70 billion a year in absenteeism, lost productivity, and claims for disability and unemployment insurance. Efforts are underway this session to ensure mental health parity is phased into insurance plans.

A healthy Washington also means one where we breathe clean air and drink clean water. Among the measures in progress this session are a bipartisan proposal to reduce auto emissions, and a measure that would improve our state's oil spill prevention, preparedness and response.

Washington citizens deserve the opportunities that all of these measures would afford. It will take some work and a true bipartisan effort, but that is what we are in Olympia to do. As Albert Einstein said, ``In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.''

Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-41st Legislative District, is assistant majority whip as well as vice chair of the Senate Early Learning, K-12 & Higher Education Committee and vice chair of the Judiciary Committee. He also serves on the Senate Transportation Committee.

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