Politics & Government

Lawmakers look to add mental health beds

The Legislature might chip away this year at Washington’s shortage of space for detaining patients with potentially dangerous mental illness.

A bipartisan group of senators wants to spend $30 million of a $3.9 billion capital budget unveiled Wednesday to help build space for scores of beds at local hospitals and other community facilities.

It’s the latest and largest in a series of proposals for construction spending on community mental-health facilities, following offers by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and a bipartisan House group. At the same time, Inslee, the House and the Senate all have called for tens of millions of dollars to pay the operating costs of dozens of detention beds in local facilities and a new ward at Western State Hospital.

Those budget items come in the shadow of a court ruling last year striking down the practice of parking patients in emergency rooms. Washington is among the states with the fewest per-person psychiatric beds.

In a separate case involving jail inmates, a federal judge last week ordered the state to provide faster evaluations and treatment of mental illness. The House, Senate and Inslee all call for new wards at Western and Eastern state hospitals for that purpose.

But unlike the House, the Senate is not proposing building a prison focused on mental health in south Thurston County at the former Maple Lane School site.

Of the $30 million the Senate wants to spend on community mental health beds, more than half of the money would be earmarked for specific projects — including $2 million to help two private hospital networks build a $41 million, 120-bed psychiatric hospital in central Tacoma.

The Multicare and CHI Franciscan health systems are awaiting approval from the state Department of Health to build the facility.

“Bringing more beds online and providing more crisis services is a great step for our state,” said Chelene Whiteaker, policy director for the Washington State Hospital Association.

Republican Sens. Jim Honeyford of Sunnyside and Bruce Dammeier of Puyallup and Democratic Sens. Karen Keiser of Des Moines and Steve Conway of Tacoma negotiated the Senate’s two-year capital budget, which focuses heavily on education.

A six-year proposal tied to the plan would hand out roughly $900 million in grants to help school districts build about 1,700 new classrooms in elementary-school buildings, plus about 400 more in portable units.

Without new elementary classrooms, school districts will be hard-pressed to use money the Legislature is poised to give them to hire more teachers in kindergarten through third grade.

Both the House and Senate want to reduce student-to-teacher ratios in those grades to 17-to-1 and offer statewide all-day kindergarten as part of complying with a court order to end underfunding of education by the 2017-2018 school year. Randy Dorn, state superintendent of public instruction, has estimated those goals will require an extra 5,698 extra classrooms across the state.

The Senate plan would require a new count of space needs, then hand out money for either new schools or portable units depending on how many classrooms each district needs. A new formula would give districts a greater state share of funding than they now receive for school construction.

The House plan has far less extra money for elementary-school grants. But both the House and Senate would hand out more than $600 million for school construction in all grades based on the current formula, which requires school districts to pick up most of the tab and doesn’t fund portable buildings.

“Portables are supposed to be temporary,” said Eden Mack of the Seattle Council of Parent, Teacher and Student Associations. She cautioned against spending money on more portables, which she said already number about 4,000 at Washington schools and present logistical hassles for teachers and students.

But Dammeier said portables are “in some cases the best solution for a school district for getting one classroom or two classrooms.”

The Senate capital budget sets aside money for a host of South Sound projects, including the renovation of the Tacoma Paper and Stationary Building on Jefferson Avenue, lately home to the Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant. The building would become the Urban Solutions Center for the University of Washington Tacoma.

The 40,000-square-foot building would house classrooms and labs to support the Tacoma campus’s plans to offer degrees in engineering and biomedical sciences. The campus expects to grow from today’s enrollment of 4,500 to 7,000 students in less than a decade.

“This building will allow us to grow by 500 to 1,000 students,” said Mike Wark, external relations director for UWT.

The House did not offer money for the UWT project.

But both chambers called for renovating the lecture hall at The Evergreen State College.

The Senate and House also agree on building a “readiness center” in Thurston County to replace two old armories in Olympia and Puyallup.

And both chambers find money for construction of the Foothills National Recreation Trail through the Puyallup Valley as part of awarding Washington Wildlife and Recreation Fund grants, though the Senate wants to skip over other grants that involve acquiring new land.