Standing shoulder to shoulder for the hour-long match-up, each agreed that increasing funding for public schools and colleges is a top priority for the state's next governor and each made their strongest pledge yet to not propose higher taxes or an income tax if elected.
But they questioned each other's approach for coming up with the money, revitalizing the private sector and stimulating creation of new jobs.
They clashed most sharply on a personal matter: their income tax returns.
Inslee released five years of his returns last week then called on McKenna to do the same. He reiterated his request during the debate.
"Why do you feel you are exempt from this expectation," Inslee said.
McKenna responded tersely: "I feel I am exempt from a lot of your expectations, congressman," he said. He called the demand "laughable" and discussing it in the debate was a waste of time as anyone could go online to find out about his income, debts and investments from forms he files annually with the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Inslee countered the governor is the chief executive officer of a multi-billion dollar organization and the public should be able to see the returns "to make sure they have no doubts" about the person they put in the job.
Wednesday's debate in front of 200 people on the campus of Washington State University in Vancouver was their first face-to-face meeting since Inslee and McKenna took the top two spots in the Aug. 7 primary. Additional debates are planned Oct. 2 in Yakima and Oct. 16 in Seattle.
McKenna, who is trying to become the state's first Republican governor since John Spellman in the early 80s, spent much of the evening on the offensive. He repeatedly jabbed Inslee for pushing recycled ideas and a "stubborn refusal to talk in specifics" for voters to know what he'll do if elected.
"We're not hearing any new ideas here," he said. "We're not hearing anything that needs to change."
On taxes, Inslee said he was "not proposing to raise taxes" though he did believe the state needs more revenue for services and schools. And he said he also opposed a state income tax.
McKenna, who said he "will not propose tax rate increases," questioned Inslee's no-tax pledge given his words echoed those of Gov. Chris Gregoire before she endorsed raising some taxes.
As expected, several questions focused on issues of most concern to residents of southwest Washington. Chief among them is whether they supported construction of a new span across the Columbia River linking Vancouver and Portland and how they would cover its estimated $3 billion cost.
McKenna called the project "too important to jeopardize" but expressed concern that the burden of the costs could fall unfairly on Washington residents.
Inslee said moving forward with the project is imperative for the region, the state and the nation and a consensus must be reached on a financing package. He also said it would not be built "unless we find a way to get light rail onto this bridge."
Education funding received attention too.
It is a central issue in this year's campaign since the high court concluded in January that the state isn't meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education. In the so-called McCleary decision, justices gave state lawmakers until 2018 to fix the way the state pays for education.
Both men insisted they'll be able to make a sizable down payment in the next two years without increasing taxes.
McKenna contends he can come up with $1.7 billion for education primarily by redirecting money from non-education programs into classrooms. He said some of those dollars would come from limiting what other departments spend and paying less of the health care tab of state workers.
Inslee said he will find more money for schools and colleges by trimming wasteful spending, lowering health care costs and generating revenue from a revived economy.
McKenna, 49, in his second term as attorney general, and Inslee, 61, a former congressman, are dueling in one of the nation's most competitive gubernatorial races.
McKenna is trying to become the state's first Republican governor since John Spellman was elected to the job in 1980.
A spate of polls before the primary showed them essentially tied. In that election, Inslee bested McKenna 47 percent to 43 percent though the turnout was less than half of what is expected in November.
As they headed out of Vancouver on Wednesday, McKenna led Inslee in the competition for dollars.
McKenna has raised nearly $8.25 million to Inslee's $7.8 million, according to information posted online with the state Public Disclosure Commission. McKenna's spent $4 million of his pot while Inslee has paid out $4.6 million of his, records show.
Both campaigns have accused the other of violating the state's election finance laws.
Inslee contends McKenna failed to disclose certain debts and expenses in a timely manner. McKenna alleges Inslee made illegal transfers of money from unspent funds in his congressional campaign account to the gubernatorial account.
As of Wednesday, the Public Disclosure Commission had not opened a formal investigation into either complaint.
Wednesday's debate will be rebroadcast on TVW. For dates and times, go to www.tvw.org.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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