By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA — With a basketball hoop installed, oath of office taken and inaugural address delivered, Jay Inslee can now get settled in as Washington’s 23rd governor.
Awaiting his immediate attention this year are must-dos for the state such as crafting a balanced budget, enhancing the health and welfare of public schools and discovering a route for sustaining Washington’s transportation system.
There is a longer-term honey-do list from those who helped him win in November and Inslee’s got a few things he wants to get done in order to leave a lasting imprint on the state.
Add in the unpredictable, such as federal regulators grounding Boeing’s Dreamliner jet on the day he took office, and it’s clear there’s no honeymoon for this job.
Before the 61-year-old Democrat knows it, his four-year term will be over and a campaign for a second — should he want it — will be well under way.
On what will Inslee be judged four years from now?
In interviews, Democratic and Republican lawmakers as well as pollsters and professors offered their ideas. Almost all of them mentioned five matters on which Inslee’s performance will be scored.
Did he put people to work in jobs of the future?
Voters tend to punish incumbents when the economy sours and reward them when it soars.
“The No. 1 item on the scorecard for any election is the economy,” said Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, a political science professor at Central Washington University. “Four years from now we’ll look back at the economy and ask, ‘Is it better?’”
Inslee’s vowed to make jobs, a leading barometer of an economy’s strength, his top priority “every single day for the next four years.” His goal is to foment hiring in clean energy companies and called it “our destiny” to lead the world in this industry.
Folks probably won’t care whose doing the hiring just that they are, said Todd Donovan, political science professor at Western Washington University.
“He didn’t win because of the environmental stuff and he’s not going to lose because of it,” Donovan said.
Did he keep his pledge to not raise taxes?
Inslee may be doing a lot of explaining on this subject. As a candidate, he said he wouldn’t increase taxes and vowed to veto new ones out of concern they’d impede the recovery of the state’s economy.
But last week he said he might agree to extend two taxes set to expire in June if the revenue they generate — about $317 million a year — helps the state balance its budget or comply with a court order to better fund public schools.
Inslee said doing so wouldn’t violate his pledge. “They do not raise taxes on people over the existing level being paid today. Since they do not increase taxes, they are not a tax increase.”
Republicans strenuously disagreed with his interpretation. If Inslee does embrace the extension, it won’t be forgotten in four years.
Did he craft a budget that can stay balanced?
Inslee will be writing two budgets covering spending in his term. He arrived to find a $900 million deficit projected for the first one. As he drafts a spending plan to erase the red ink, he’ll probably try to lay a foundation to prevent a shortfall in his second budget. Deficits invite criticism for overspending from opponents.
This may not be a fatal flaw. In 2008, for example, former Gov. Chris Gregoire won re-election in spite of state budget woes at that time.
“You don’t lose for that,” Donovan said of budget deficits. “You lose for raising taxes and you lose if the economy is stagnant.”
Did the state meet its obligations to public schools?
How Inslee negotiates the turbulence caused by the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision will test his mettle.
The ruling is complex. Compliance requires injecting several billion dollars more into public schools and boosting academic achievement of students. Justices set a 2018 deadline. A failure to comply would evoke the wrath of the justices and put a black mark on the governor’s evaluation.
On the other hand, Inslee could shine if he uses the bully pulpit of his office to unite Democrats and Republicans on a course of action. His problem is solving this concern could require him to break his promise on taxes.
“I think the education/McCleary issue is going to get bigger and bigger,” said Matt Barreto, the University of Washington political science professor who oversees the statewide Washington Poll. “We can’t properly fund K-12 schools without more sources of funding.”
Did he come up with a way to pay for paving highways, building ferries, expanding light rail and so on?
As an issue, transportation will vex Inslee as it did his predecessor though its political cost is indeterminate.
Gregoire was the driving force behind passage of a gas tax hike in 2005 to fund $16 billion in improvements. It didn’t cost her re-election in 2008.
Inslee talks of putting a package in front of voters this year or next. He’s not offered any specifics thus far. To the extent this issue is a notable landmark in this term depends on when it goes forward, what’s in it and if it passes.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.