Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has had his struggles and his missteps during his first term in office, providing a foothold for his opponent, Republican and former Seattle port commissioner Bill Bryant, to make his case to succeed Inslee.
Among the slip-ups most noticeable to Snohomish County residents was Inslee’s proposed $12 billion transportation budget in 2015 that included only $82.8 million in road and bridge projects in the county after local government and economic officials had outlined more than $1 billion in needs for a county that is among the state’s top engines for manufacturing and technology jobs. In the end, the historic $16 billion transportation package and its gas tax increase — passed by the Legislature and signed by Inslee — secured about $670 million in Snohomish County projects.
Bryant has been able to draw from other fodder for his campaign, including slow movement by the Legislature to adequately fund K-12 education; the delayed response by the Department of Corrections to a software problem that allowed the mistaken early release of inmates; a near loss of federal funding at Western State Hospital in Lakewood, one of two of the state’s main psychiatric facilities, because of security breaches and safety concerns for staff and patients; and continued congestion on state highways and interstate freeways.
Beyond general criticism, Bryant has been light on the details as to how he would fix or respond differently to complex issues that require negotiations with lawmakers in a divided Legislature, leadership among agencies and state employees and the funding to implement needed improvements.
Regarding the mismanagement at Western State, Inslee removed the hospital’s administrator and fought to increase funding to increase the number of beds and pay wages to staff that would attract and keep qualified employees. Inslee also was quick to call for an independent investigation of the Corrections scandal that identified those responsible and outlined needed improvements.
Even better than quick response, however, would be improved oversight of the agencies for which Inslee is responsible.
Alongside the struggles, Inslee has had successes and has demonstrated leadership in moving forward when he meets opposition, particularly in regard to environmental issues. When the Legislature refused to move on his cap-and-trade proposal to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change, Inslee directed the state Department of Ecology to proceed with a clean air rule that establishes phased-in caps on carbon emissions.
Similarly, when Republicans in the Senate rejected Inslee-requested legislation for stronger controls to keep toxic chemicals out of state waters so they wouldn’t have to removed later and at greater cost, Inslee proceeded — with support from some industries — to institute the state’s own clean water rule, rather than turn over the task to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Inslee responded with deliberate speed following the Oso landslide in 2014. He directed the state Department of Transportation to work quickly — yet with respect for the 43 residents who lost their lives — to remove debris and rebuild and reopen Highway 530 in 109 days, restoring a vital link between Arlington and Darrington. He also convened the SR530 Landslide Commission, which reviewed the disaster response and outlined numerous recommendations. And Inslee was a key player in economic assistance after the slide, including assistance for a Darrington mill and promotion of tourism in the Stillaguamish Valley.
A quick response also followed the 2013 collapse of I-5’s bridge across the Skagit River. Inslee declared an economic state of emergency for Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties, and the permit process was streamlined, putting a temporary span in place in less than a month.
Inslee also reacted quickly to call lawmakers into special session in 2014 to craft a new package of tax incentives to persuade Boeing to assemble its 777X in Everett and build a new facility to craft the jetliner’s carbon-fiber wings. There have been second thoughts that those incentives should have put more onus on Boeing to keep jobs in Washington state, but the overall achievement and the coming 777X jobs remain.
The next four years are likely to be just as eventful.
Immediately after taking office, the next governor and the Legislature will need to dive into work to meet a state Supreme Court mandate to amply fund education and end an over-reliance on local school levies to provide funding for basic education. That’s in additional to the biannual budget process.
Meeting the needs of education and restoring a level of services to state agencies that can address ongoing statewide problems with addiction, mental illness and homelessness, will demand better cooperation among lawmakers and the governor’s office, a level of cooperation that has been lacking in recent sessions.
Lawmakers and Inslee both have said they are waiting for the results of a report expected in December to guide their next steps. The Legislature in recent years has made advances regarding education funding, but they have come with difficulty and only after repeated special sessions. Inslee will need to take a greater leadership role with lawmakers to get a deal done.
Noting accomplishments along with the struggles, Inslee remains the best choice to serve as governor.