SPOKANE, June 13.—There weren’t any knockout punches in what appeared an evenly matched debate between the state’s two leading candidates for governor Tuesday, Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna and former Democratic Congressman Jay Inslee. But there was plenty of contrast, as McKenna challenged both Inslee and the record of the Democrats who have essentially controlled state government since 1985, and Inslee continued to tout green technology as the future of the state’s economy.
The key points? Inslee and McKenna are going to cancel each other’s votes on initiatives likely to appear on the fall ballot that would permit charter schools and preserve the state’s 2/3 legislative voting requirement for tax increases. McKenna is a yes on both; Inslee is a no. McKenna also said he would back a transportation tax increase for the ballot in 2013 or 2014, while Inslee offered no clear time frame for his support.
Both said they think they can find an additional $1 billion in the next budget for K-12 education without raising taxes. And on what is emerging as a top environmental issue, neither candidate appeared to take a firm stand for or against coal-port terminals on Puget Sound.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was Inslee’s strong showing in his matchup with McKenna, largely because expectations had been low, and because of McKenna’s rep as a strong debater. For an hour on the stage of Spokane’s historic State Theater, recently renamed for local crooner Bing Crosby, the two squared off in a debate sponsored by the Association of Washington Business and moderated by Austin Jenkins of National Public Radio. It was the only joint appearance that so far has been scheduled during this campaign season.
The most important contrast came in a soft way, as Inslee took several opportunities to offer environmental technology as an industry that deserves special promotion and consideration, and McKenna argued that business and occupations tax breaks ought to be directed to business as a whole.
Said Inslee, “China is not waiting to dominate lithium-ion batteries. Germany is not waiting to dominate solar cells. We should not be waiting to build the industries of the next century and we are capable of doing that in this state. That is why I am targeting my proposals.”
Responded McKenna, “Well, I am looking out at an audience full of businesspeople. They have all kinds of businesses, and I wonder how many of them favor a plan that gives their competitors, or those in an entirely different industry, an advantage over their own. Wouldn’t you rather have a level playing field where all of you have a fair chance of being successful? That is what I am aiming for as a governor. That is what I have done as attorney general.”
Points of Clash
Charter schools – McKenna said Washington ought to join the 41 states that allow charter schools to be established outside the public K-12 school system. “They are not a panacea, they are not a silver bullet, but they should be part of the mix,” he said. Inslee said charter schools will drain money from the existing K-12 system and make it that much harder to improve the schools the state already has. “The research is clear that only one out of five succeed, and we will fail if we don’t have public accountability. We need public accountability in our schools, and I will be voting no.”
Supermajorities for taxes – McKenna said he will support Initiative 1185, the latest version of the two-thirds voting requirement for tax increases that Washington voters have supported four times since 1993. “The voters have been quite clear. They think the people who have been running Olympia since 1985 are too ready to raise taxes, that they turn too often to tax increases as a solution at a time when in our state families and small businesses are struggling with their own finances.” Inslee said the two-thirds requirement allows the Republican minority to control the course of debate in the Legislature: “It is a principle of democracy that we have one person, one vote, and that should be a bedrock principle for us.”
Transportation funding – Inslee was non-committal on the $20 billion to $50 billion question that has energized many in the state’s business community — when and if the state will go to voters with a proposal to raise gas taxes and other revenue for road construction. Inslee said, “The right time is when we regain the support of Washingtonians who will in fact vote to support a transportation package that uses our multiple tools in the toolbox to get the job done.” McKenna was far more specific, naming road projects that require state funding, including Spokane’s north-south freeway, completion of SR 509 between the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, and additional lanes for the I-5 bottleneck at Joint Base Lewis McChord. The right time will be sometime in the next two years, McKenna said, “depending on how long it takes the Legislature to put together a package with a funding mechanism that can be taken to the voters for their consideration, and voters can decide whether they want to approve that package or not.”
During the portion of any debate that usually offers the greatest sparks – the point at which candidates get to ask one another questions – Inslee parried a thrust by McKenna when the Republican questioned his support in Congress for measures that loosened borrowing requirements by homeowners. McKenna said the decision was a root cause of the national economic collapse in the fall of 2008. “It happened because Congress and administrations successively decided they would cheapen lending standards to make it easier for people with poor credit to obtain loans,” McKenna said. “The problem was it wasn’t just those people who were using those no-money-down loans. It was those who thought they could get rich with no money down, who were watching those shows on cable TV.”
Inslee said it was the unbridled greed of Wall Street that did it, and noted that he opposed the repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall banking restrictions. “Fundamentally the Romney/McKenna view of life is that the reason that we have problems is because of homeowners and not Wall Street. I have a fundamentally different view. I do not believe our economy collapsed because of homeowners. I believe it collapsed because of Wall Street’s irresponsibility.”
McKenna said the key issue before voters this year is the direction of state government during the years of Democratic control. Though Republicans have occasionally won control of one or the other chambers of the Legislature over the last 30 years, Washington has not elected a Republican governor since 1980. McKenna said that coincides with a period in which state support for higher education declined, the state put its money elsewhere, and tuition shot skyward. He noted that when he was student body president at the University of Washington during the 1984-85 school year, the state expended 16 percent of its budget on higher education; last year, as his daughter Madeline served in the same position, the percentage of the budget devoted to higher ed had slipped to eight percent.
“Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric,” McKenna said. “The folks running Olympia for the last 28 years, especially the last 10 to 20 years, have decimated higher education funding. They are the ones who are responsible for driving higher education from 16 percent of the budget to eight percent.”
Inslee said he hopes to reduce the decline in state support for colleges and state universities. But he said, “We have to realize that we don’t have a printing press and I have to be somewhat disappointed that my opponent has made promises that we just can’t keep.”
A Packed House
Spokane’s historic State Theater, a classic theater with its pronescium arch and plaster filigree, was packed with spectators who were attending an Association of Washington Business meeting across the street at the Davenport Hotel. The gubernatorial debate was preceded by another spirited scrap between Reagan Dunn and Bob Ferguson, the Republican and Democratic candidates respectively in this year’s race for attorney general. Every seat was filled.
When it was over, state Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane, who like many in the political arena got his start as a high school debater, said he thought McKenna had a better command of the issues, but added, “I thought Jay Inslee projected very well in his presence and his response. Inslee stuck to general themes that he has aired throughout the campaign, while McKenna, as is his style, offered plenty of specifics. I don’t see any fundamental change in the Gov.’s race as a result of this debate.”
The key reason, Padden explained, is that neither one of them screwed up.