OLYMPIA, Oct. 11.—Just one more debate to go, and there still isn’t an answer to what might be the biggest question in Washington’s gubernatorial race. What exactly is in Jay Inslee’s secret sauce?
Inslee faced Republican Rob McKenna in what was assuredly the biggest debate of the season, carried over all network TV stations in the state and broadcast from the Seattle TV studios of KOMO-4. There wasn’t much new ground broken in their latest televised encounter, save for a few brickbats over school finance – a disappointment perhaps to those who have been wondering about the ingredients in Inslee’s plan. For the fourth debate in a row, Democrat Inslee insisted he has a recipe for the state that will generate so much tax revenue within the first few months of passage that the state will be able to avoid a tax increase. But he still didn’t provide any numbers or mixing instructions.
“My plan is rooted in the unique talents and capabilities of the state of Washington,” he said. “We do have a secret sauce here and that is innovation.”
It was a rather more subdued debate than those before, most particularly last week’s encounter in Yakima when former Congressman Inslee strayed from his stump speech, Attorney General McKenna hammered away at the murky platitudes, and Inslee attempted to change the subject to national issues. This time the candidates appeared limited by the debate format, which didn’t allow them to pose questions of one another. But both also may have been on their best behavior for the sake of voters who only now are tuning in to the race. At any rate, Inslee stuck to the talking points and McKenna toned down the attacks on the Democratic record during the 28 years Inslee’s party has controlled the governor’s mansion.
But McKenna’s message was still clear: “The first thing we have to do is live within our means,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that as they talk about deficits and the leaders in Olympia who are supporting Congressman Inslee are demanding tax increases, they are also projecting revenue increases over the next eight years of over $11 billion. So what we have to do is prioritize that increase in revenue of over $11 billion to education.”
Education Funding the Issue
With less a month to go in one of the country’s tightest gubernatorial races, the central issue that has emerged is the hefty cost of a state Supreme Court decision that will force the state to beef up spending on public schools. Price tag is put at about $1 billion over the next two years by most players, and more than $4 billion by state schools superintendent Randy Dorn – though he appears to be alone on that. And the big question is how the state can pay for it at a time when it is strapped for cash. McKenna says it can be done by capping growth in spending for other programs – a prospect that brings howls to state employee unions and social-service interests. Armed with charts and figures and budget projections, McKenna says the approach would quickly ratchet up education’s share of the budget, adding $4 billion in 2019-21. But Inslee won’t say no to the unions. Instead he says tax increases can be avoided by making government more efficient, closing tax loopholes, and launching a jobs-creation program that targets high-tech and clean-energy industries. His plan, though outlined in great detail on his website, doesn’t provide estimates for the amount of money he would save and the amount of tax revenue he would generate, making it virtually impossible to scrutinize and criticize.
At Thursday’s debate, Inslee again asserted it would work. “I am not an economist but I did major in economics at the University of Washington, and I learned that when you have got an economic challenge you have got to diagnose what the problem is. And the fundamental problem with our fiscal condition in this state is simply this. We have 300,000 people out of work. That is why I have focused like a laser beam on a job creation program so that we can build businesses in the private sector to get people back to work. When that happens we will generate more revenues, in sales tax and various other systems, to get more revenue back into our house so we can put it into education.”
McKenna said the vague promise seems to flout everything most everyone in Inslee’s party is saying, from current Gov. Christine Gregoire on down, not to mention the interest groups that are backing Inslee’s campaign. They’re calling for a tax increase so that traditional spending priorities might be maintained and expanded – state-worker pay, Medicaid, social programs. McKenna said similar priorities over the last 30 years have dramatically reduced education’s share of the budget and dug the hole in which the state finds itself today. He noted many have crossed party lines to support his campaign. “They see we cannot continue going down the same path we’ve been on, that we need a new direction. That it’s not satisfactory to have schools under court order for funding, to have sky-high unemployment, and I thank them for that.”
And Now the New Part
That was the meat of it, however familiar the argument might be to anyone who has been following the race. There was really only one new element in Thursday’s debate – an extended discussion of Inslee’s recent attack on a school-finance plan that has wide support among both Democrats and Republicans. The so-called “levy swap” would supplant local levies with state property tax money, raising taxes in some areas and lowering them in others. It wouldn’t raise any more money overall, but it would meet one Supreme Court requirement, for stable K-12 funding. In the last two weeks Inslee has gone on the attack against McKenna for supporting it, calling it a tax increase on 47 percent of the state’s homeowners. But Inslee hasn’t advanced a counterplan of his own, leaving many in his own party privately seething.
“What I do not agree with is this gimmick that Rob has proposed which does not put more money in fact into schools,” Inslee said. “…It may help Olympia politicians on paper, but it does not help students in the classroom where it counts.”
Said McKenna, “Well, Congressman Inslee has obviously convinced himself it is a gimmick, but nobody else agrees with him, none of the people who have actually been working on the issue, Democrats, Republicans, education advocates and groups like the League of Education Voters, Stand for Children, newspaper journalists or experts in education. They’ve all said that what Congressman Inslee is saying is false, simply false, not a gimmick but in fact a strategy that Democrats and Republicans in Olympia have come up with to comply with a court order that says that local levy dollars are too high and have to be replaced with state dollars. So we can ask him, does he want to raise the sales tax? Does he want to raise the B&O tax for those dollars? Because he is evidently not supporting the idea that his own party has come up with.”
Inslee said he’d raise the money with his plan. “I believe it can work,” he said. “It can generate hundreds of millions of dollars for education.”
So it all comes back to the secret sauce.