Little shared ground in gubernatorial debate

SPOKANE — The two leading candidates for Washington governor debated for the first time on Tuesday and agreed that new taxes aren’t needed to improve schools.

But they disagreed on most other points, including education, in the hour-long debate at the Bing Crosby Theater in Spokane.

Former Democratic Congressman Jay Inslee declined to promise that he would add a billion dollars in the next two-year budget to improve basic education in a way demanded by the state Supreme Court in a ruling made earlier this year. His opponent, Republican Rob McKenna did, noting that $1 billion is just 3 percent of the state budget.

But Inslee accused McKenna of “faulty math” for supporting significant budget increases for education, higher education and Medicaid funding while also supporting exemptions for more than 100,000 businesses from the state’s business and occupation tax.

“We do have to realize that we don’t have a printing press,” Inslee said. “My opponent has made promises that we just cannot keep.”

McKenna responded that he would push for business and occupation tax relief only after schools are “fully funded” and the higher education budget is boosted.

“It’s not something we can afford to do right away,” McKenna said. “If it’s not part of your vision, you’ll never attain it.”

McKenna said he would find the $1 billion to improve schools by “squeezing the existing budget,” ending some tax loopholes and reserving improved tax collections raised in an better economy to education. Inslee said he’d work toward the goal in a similar way, by focusing on job growth to raise tax revenue, closing tax loopholes, improving “preventative health care” to save money and instituting programs often used by private industry to make government more efficient.

The debate was sponsored by the Association of Washington Business in partnership with Greater Spokane Inc. The association has sponsored governor debates for the previous five Washington gubernatorial races. For the first time, the debate was held before the primary. That means seven long-shot candidates were left out.

The crowd of about 700 included members of the business association on the main floor and invitees of campaigns in the balcony. No cheering or clapping were allowed except at the start and the end, a rule that was never violated.

Each candidate was given a chance to ask the other a question.

McKenna asked Inslee if he regrets his votes in Congress to make it easier to obtain home loans with poor credit.

“You voted for a series of bills that contributed to the housing crisis in America,” McKenna said.

But Inslee used the question as an opportunity to stress his opposition to financial industry deregulations that were supported by President Bill Clinton and to link McKenna with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

“The Romney-McKenna view of life is that the reason that we have problems is because of homeowners, not Wall Street,” Inslee said. “I have a fundamentally different view.”

McKenna tried to portray Inslee’s view as pro-tax and pro-regulation. Businesses and the environment would be better off if federal, state and local environmental regulations were examined so that they are better aligned, McKenna said.

“The congressman has never met a regulation he doesn’t like or that couldn’t be stricter,” he said. “The fact is that regulations have real costs and real consequences.”

Inslee said McKenna’s stance is more about lowering standards than aligning them.

“To go down to the federal standards, that might be fit for Mississippi for Arkansas, but they’re not fit for our state,” Inslee said.

While opposing tax increases to boost state funding, Inslee called rules that require a super-majority in the Legislature to approve tax increases a “distortion of a democratic principle.”

“When we impose two-thirds requirements, here is the result: One of our citizens gets one vote, another of our citizens gets 1 ½ votes,” he said.

But McKenna stressed that the requirements were approved by the people.

“The voters have been very clear that the people running Olympia since 1985 are too ready to raise taxes,” he said. The two-thirds stipulation “provides a higher hedge against tax increases that otherwise could become too routine.”

McKenna was more committed than Inslee in asking voters for a tax package to pay for several transportation projects, including the Highway 520 bridge. He pledged to take a package to the voters next year or in 2014.

Inslee declined to say when he would push for a tax for road projects, arguing that the public doesn’t trust state government.

“The right time is when we regain the trust of Washingtonians,” he said.

Inslee criticized McKenna for challenging the Affordable Care Act, the federal health care law signed by President Barack Obama. He pointed to several popular provisions, including rules that prevent insurance companies from refusing coverage because of pre-existing health problems.

“I have to say that I am disappointed that our attorney general has tried to take every single one of those rights away from Washingtonians,” Inslee said.

McKenna said his target wasn’t the popular provisions, but the mandate to obtain health insurance, which he believes is unconstitutional.

“He put all those other values at risk by including the unpopular health insurance mandate into the law to begin with,” McKenna said.

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