Matt Driscoll

Staunch Republican strongly endorses a mental health tax. He’s not from around here

A certified peer recovery specialist for Recovery Innovations Inc., comforts a man overwhelmed by anxiety and thoughts of suicide.
A certified peer recovery specialist for Recovery Innovations Inc., comforts a man overwhelmed by anxiety and thoughts of suicide. News Tribune file photo, 2011

Al French isn’t from Pierce County.

He doesn’t know the politics here or the partisan divisiveness that has long infected our County Council.

That must be nice.

What French does know is county government, and how it functions in a place that’s not altogether different from here.

For the last decade, French has been one of three elected Spokane County commissioners. Basically, that makes him the equivalent to one of our seven Pierce County Council members, only we have significantly more of them (lucky us).

French is also a proud Republican — and I mean proud Republican — from a largely conservative area. His party has dominated the Board of Commissioners for years, governing over a county with a number of similarities to Pierce.

One key difference?

Spokane County, like more than 20 other counties across the state, long ago levied a small sales tax dedicated to funding behavioral health services.

Pierce County still has not, which is why I sought French out this week.

Recently, as The News Tribune reported, Pierce County Council members Connie Ladenburg and Derek Young announced a plan to take another swing at passing a countywide behavioral health sales tax here.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to be clairvoyant to foresee the predictable partisan spat that comes next. In 2016, the tax went down in last-minute flames, unable to secure the five vote supermajority it needs.

Enter French, and the perspective he provides.

Speaking over the phone, I asked French how the tax is viewed and discussed where he’s from, particularly among his ruby red Republican friends and colleagues..

More to the point, I wanted to learn how the tax and the services it funds are perceived on the other side of the mountains by elected officials like him, far removed from the looming shadow of Seattle and the tired party-line squabbles we know all too well here.

Why is it so easy, and non-controversial there, when Pierce County leaders make deciding the fate of a penny-per-$10 sales-tax increase look like a referendum on morality, life choices, the role of county government and all that is right and wrong in the world?

After all, it’s not like Spokane is some weird outlier where Republicans and Democrats have magically united to tackle issues related to mental health and addiction. A number of predominantly red counties across the state, like Spokane, already have the tax, and let’s not pretend all philosophical disagreements have evaporated in these places.

Likewise, French isn’t a Mother Teresa figure.

As it turns out, he’s just a Republican who apparently doesn’t suffer from the same misguided hangups as the ones we have here.

So what’s the deal?

French didn’t mince words, which was helpful.

He also didn’t skirt the question of right and wrong, which was even better.

In Spokane County the tax has been broadly supported for years, he said, because “the alternative is not the morally right thing to do.”

Go on ...

“I hate to sound pious on this, but the bottom line is that without these funds, I’m going to be putting people in jail who will not have a better life because they’re in jail. To put someone in jail because they’ve got a mental health issue is just cruel,” French continued.

“Quite frankly,” he added, “ I don’t know how we would be able to deliver services without the tax.”

Yes, well, that’s the thing, as Pierce County knows all too well.

Without the revenue and the kinds of critical services a dedicated behavioral health sales tax can create, it’s virtually impossible — at least under current circumstances — for a county to deliver the kind of care and prevention that’s necessary.

That’s stupid, inhumane, and wasteful, as Spokane’s successes and the support the tax receives show.

There, the tax has recently brought in roughly $12 million a year, funding chemical dependency or mental health treatment services along with targeted therapeutic court programs. It dates back roughly 15 years, having first been blessed by an advisory vote of the people and later enacted by the Board of Commissioners.

The tax — which French said has never been controversial — has been renewed several times. Most recently, French and his colleagues extended it for the next decade because it works and it saves money, he argued.

Most importantly, French said, the tax is largely seen as a way to help people live better lives while keeping the afflicted out of jails and emergency rooms.

It’s a no-brainer, he said.

“I’ve been a Republican all my life, and even I wouldn’t vote against this tax because it’s the right thing to do. If this tax came to the Board of County Commissioners for us to renew council-matically, it would pass 100 percent,” French said.

Refreshing.

And kind of depressing.

If only it were so easy in Pierce County.

Sadly, my guess is it won’t be, but perhaps Dave Morell and Pam Roach, who weren’t on the County Council the last time we played this all important game will join their Republican colleague Doug Richardson this time around and surprise me.

Roach, at least, has a history of surprises..

Perhaps, like The News Tribune editorial board suggested, Republican County Executive Bruce Dammeier will step in and offer vocal support of the tax? That would probably help.

Then again, there is an election coming.

Or, perhaps, history will repeat itself, and everyone will walk away shouting and shaking their heads while the toll of inaction adds up in the lives of real people.

French, for one, stated the obvious: The latter would be a mistake.

“Whether you’re an R or a D, this is the compassionate, right thing to do,” French told The News Tribune.

He then quickly clarified that, technically, there are no Ds on the Spokane County Board of Commissioners.

Good to know.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
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