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Q&A: Sen. Manka Dhingra on 2022 priorities

Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45th) chairs the Senate Behavioral Health Subcommittee, serves as vice chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, and sits on the Ways and Means Committee. During her time in the legislature, Sen. Dhingra has advocated for behavioral health bills, support for domestic violence survivors, and for gun safety.

We spoke with Sen. Dhingra to see what her legislative priorities are as the 2022 session approaches. Additional information from this interview on behavioral health can be read at our sister site, State of Reform.

Aaron Kunkler: With the 2022 legislative session approaching, what are your policy priorities?

Sen. Manka Dhingra: This is a short session. I also think that myself and a lot of legislators, a lot of the public, are just fairly exhausted. So I don’t expect any huge large bills or new ideas or concepts. I think a lot of the work is a refining of the work we’ve been doing, making tweaks as needed and perfecting or improving the system of governance. Because, frankly, the last four years since I won and we took over the majority there has been just tremendous change in terms of putting people first, making sure people have access to services and support. 

I know Roger Goodman and Jesse Johnson are working on a trailer bill to the use of force bill from last session, really making sure we are clarifying the fact that there were no changes made to the civil commitment statute, we still expect law enforcement to show up and help people. And clarifying some of the stuff around the use of the beanbags and the rifles. 

We had the big domestic violence bill last session, where really, again, Washington is leading the country in the way we’re providing services and support to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. And we have the issue with coercive controls peeking out at the last minute in the Senate. So there’ll be a bill about making sure we are putting that back in. I know our office has been contacted a lot since the Maid came out on Netflix, because it’s all about coercive control in Washington State. And now, there’s no protection for that in our state. 

We’re definitely going to see that. I in fact actually have a town hall tomorrow on domestic violence, talking about barriers and how we can streamline the system for survivors, because we saw a 30% increase in fatalities for survivors of domestic violence. I mean, a lot of the murders that we saw this year, last year, were unfortunately domestic violence. 

Behavior help is going to be huge, and the workforce. We did record investment in behavioral health this last session, both substance use disorder and mental health. A lot of those grant dollars for these programs haven’t been used, because agencies are saying they don’t have the workforce for it. Which is really unfortunate, because people have been wanting these dollars for such a long time. And now when they’re finally there, they don’t have the workforce. So really taking a look at that. And take a look at not just behavioral health workforce, I think you can include all healthcare providers in there, because they have really been stressed for the last year and a half.

AK: Definitely. One of the ways you’re hoping to address workforce issues is by expanding apprenticeships, is that correct? 

MD: Yes, absolutely. I think we just don’t use them as much as other countries and other states do. I’m really glad that we are leaning into that. Traditionally, people say no, apprenticeship means when you’re doing work with your hands. It could be a plumber, or an electrician, but that’s not true at all. You have apprenticeships that you can do for all professionals all the time. In my district, we have the Tesla STEM school. We just call them internships when you do it in an office, but it’s the same thing. But you can formalize a lot of that work. And that’s really the best way to recruit people into a profession is to provide them that opportunity earlier on. 

AK: You mentioned that this session will mostly be focused on refining bills that have recently passed. What bills are you thinking of?

MD: The Long-Term Care Act is definitely on the list. And, you know, there’s an advisory committee that was created as part of it to give recommendations. I think those recommendations are due next month. So I think that’s definitely on the list of things that we need to be working on. I’m sure there’ll be more to be done in the housing situation. 

I’ve created the Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention, so doing a lot of work around gun violence prevention. I am very interested in doing more work around creating a place for University of Washington or other kinds of academics that is actually going to study the data and a combination of data from the prosecutor’s office, sheriff’s office, public health, and really take a look at causes of the violent deaths in our state, along with domestic violence. This is something that King County had done. It was really interesting that they found that a lot of the mass shootings that we have, one of the most common factors a lot of these individuals have is a history of domestic violence. So really making sure we’re understanding what’s going on when we have homicides or violent deaths in our state, and seeing if we can look at the data going back to see other points of intervention that we’re missing. 

I’ll tell you one other thing on health care that I’m interested in. I’ll have a bill on breast milk equity. This is for preemies and infants in our NICU. They’re given a lot of medications, but really, one of the things that would be great is if our doctors could just prescribe breast milk and bill for it. And we have a few states around the country that do that. And we’re looking at the New York model, and a bill on that. It really is the best for infants and preemies and I think we have donor breast milk. So really making sure that our health care providers actually can prescribe breast milk, instead of a lot of the other medications that are needed to stabilize our very, very tiny Washingtonians.

AK: Anything else?

MD: I’ll just add that one of my bills last session that didn’t pass is the one that created conditional commutation. And these are for individuals who spent 20 years in prison. It’s basically like a second look back criteria. I know this was a priority for many, many people last session. We got it out of the Senate, it went to the House, it passed the committee and did not come up for a vote on the floor. So this is leftover legislation from last session that I’m only going to be advocating for.

This interview has been lightly edited for length.

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