OLYMPIA — In his inaugural address in January 2013, Gov. Jay Inslee pledged “a multi-year effort to bring disruptive change to Olympia.”
Now, as Inslee campaigns for re-election, he’s touting what he says are the results of his handiwork: an economy roaring back from recession, a public education system invigorated with additional dollars, a first-in the-nation reduction of college tuition, more people with health insurance and the largest investment in transportation improvements in state history financed with a gas tax hike.
Challenges loom, he says, to ensure public schools are fully funded, to address shortcomings in the mental health system, to battle an epidemic of opioid addiction and to provide services for an increasing number of homeless people.
“We have made solid progress in our first four years,” he said. “I am confident and optimistic for the next four years. I’m not done with this job. I know the challenges can be overcome.”
Republican Bill Bryant, his opponent in the Nov. 8 election, sharply criticizes the incumbent’s performance, citing a rash of controversies involving state agencies as examples of a “rudderless management” style.
On Inslee’s watch, the mistaken early release of prisoners by the state Department of Corrections went unfixed for three years after its discovery. Two people died in 2015 at the hands of convicted criminals who should have been behind bars.
Western State Hospital, the state’s largest psychiatric facility, nearly lost its federal funding due to concerns about security and safety of patients and workers. Now, the Department of Social Health Services is operating under the terms of an agreement with federal authorities to make improvements.
Bryant holds Inslee accountable for not offering a public school funding plan that satisfies a state Supreme Court order, for not foreseeing problems that have beset I-405 express toll lanes and for not adequately serving the surging homeless population in the Puget Sound region.
“After four years, Gov. Inslee has trashed Washington state,” Bryant, a former Seattle port commissioner, says. “Despite all of the happy talk, Gov. Inslee’s four years are empty.”
Bryant, 56, is attempting to become the first Republican to be elected governor in Washington since 1980. It’s a big challenge when you’re not well known and you’re taking on an incumbent Democrat during a period of economic stability.
“The (losing) streak doesn’t bother me,” Bryant said in April. “This is doable. We just need to make sure people vote. This is anything but a conventional election year.”
Yet months of campaigning haven’t altered the dynamics, or the math.
Inslee leads Bryant by a a margin of 51 percent to 39 percent in a statewide poll released Monday by Seattle pollster Stuart Elway. Both candidates improved by three points from an April poll conducted by Elway.
A Bryant campaign official cautioned against the predictive nature of the numbers with two weeks of voting to go.
Elway’s final pre-election poll in 2012 had Republican Rob McKenna up by two points on Inslee and that didn’t turn out to be the final result, said Jason Roe, Bryant’s campaign spokesman.
“I think there’s a lot of good information to take away from the public polls and private polls that shows how well Bill is doing with independent voters,” he said. “There’s a long way to go and it all depends on who turns out.”
Reviewing the record
Inslee’s first term has been imprinted by tragedy.
In 2013, a portion of a highway bridge on I-5 collapsed into the Skagit River. In 2014, a deadly mudslide claimed the lives of 43 people in Oso. And a year later, three firefighters died in the midst of an unprecedented season of firestorms.
It’s also been marked by political difficulty in Olympia. Inslee, 65, a former congressman, has struggled to get his policies passed by a part-time Legislature in which Democrats control the House and Republicans rule the Senate.
For example, he could not get lawmakers to pass his cap-and-trade plan to reduce carbon emissions, which are seen as a contributing cause of global warming. At Inslee’s direction, the state Department of Ecology crafted new regulations to cap emissions of the state’s largest emitters. Under those rules, companies will begin to show reductions in 2020, at the earliest.
And partisanship fueled differences between House and Senate leaders and the governor on budgets in 2013 and again in 2015. Both times the state reached the brink of a partial shutdown before striking an accord.
One of the signature moments for Inslee came in February 2o14 when he announced a moratorium on the use of the death penalty while he was in office. Bryant, who personally opposes the death penalty, said if elected he would uphold the law.
Another is the extending of tax breaks for the Boeing Co. and the aerospace industry in November 2013.
Inslee summoned lawmakers into special session then worked behind-the-scenes to win passage. The move, which could save Boeing up to $8.7 billion in tax payments through 2040, helped convince the company to assemble the new 777X jetliner and its carbon fiber wings in Everett.
Along the way his encouraging of aerospace machinists to approve a concession-laden contract extension with Boeing angered many workers. It is a reason why the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District Lodge 751 is not endorsing the governor this election.
Since then, Boeing has shed thousands of jobs in Washington. At the end of September, Boeing had 8,067 fewer jobs in the state than when lawmakers extended the tax breaks.
Machinists and some lawmakers want to rewrite the terms to stem the outflow. Inslee said he’s willing to entertain ideas.
“I don’t know that anyone has figured out the perfect answer to this problem,” the governor told a crowd of aerospace executives, including Boeing officials, in February. “But I do believe that some measure of future job accountability is worth considering, as maintaining and growing our aerospace industry is a priority that I know we all share.”
Bryant said he’s not willing to take that course.
“If I had been governor at the time it was negotiated I would have required tax benefits be tied to quantifiable performance indicators,” he said. “I’m very uncomfortable going back in and changing the deal.”
About those schools
In 2017, the issue expected to preoccupy lawmakers and the next governor will be fully funding public schools, known simply as McCleary for the litigation that forced the issue.
In the past four years, Inslee and lawmakers increased spending on education, from preschool to college, by $5.5 billion. Of that, $2.3 billion for McCleary-related expenses including all-day kindergarten, smaller elementary classes and materials.
The work isn’t done. The state Supreme Court has given legislators until September 2018 to finish the job. The last piece is to figure out how the state will pay the full salaries of classroom teachers and reduce school districts’ reliance on local levies to operate. This could mean reforming the levy system and coming up with as much as $3.5 billion for salaries in the next state budget.
Neither Inslee nor Bryant has put forth specific solutions. Both are waiting for recommendations from a bipartisan school funding task force and counting on the economy generating lots of new revenue to cover the costs.
Inslee said he wants to close some tax loopholes and is open to a possible swap of state levy dollars for local levy dollars. In the past he also proposed a capital gains tax to help pay for schools. Bryant suggested a single statewide levy rate be considered and has expressed willingness to consider ending some tax exemptions.
Inslee touts the $16 billion package of transportation improvements for the state as an accomplishment that would not have happened in 2015 without his diligence and leadership. Bryant counters that the package came together in spite of Inslee and could have been accomplished two years sooner had he been more skilled in working with lawmakers.
The final deal contained roughly $670 million of road, transit and ferry projects in Snohomish County. That is far more than what the county stood to receive in the plan Inslee put forth in December 2014. That proposal called for $12.2 billion in spending with $82.8 million for four projects in the county.
Regarding the express toll lanes on I-405, Inslee doesn’t support getting rid of them when the two-year pilot period ends next September. Though there’s been mixed results, on balance users of the toll lanes, especially bus riders, are getting to their destinations faster, he said.
There are those who “don’t like the idea of tolling, period, and those folks are going to have those opinions,” Inslee added. “We’ll listen to those arguments at the end of two years and see what the numbers show. But right now I would not advocate getting rid of them right now from the information that we have today.”
Bryant wants to end the experiment and convert one toll lane to a general purpose lane.
“The 405 toll lanes work well if you want to spend $8 to $20 a day getting to work and getting home,” he said. “But if you don’t want to spend $8 to $20 a day then you are stuck in bumper-to-brake light traffic.”
On Sound Transit’s proposed $54 billion expansion, Inslee said he backs the ST3 ballot measure while Bryant is opposed.
And on Initiative 1433, which would increase the state’s minimum wage, Inslee is a strong supporter while Bryant opposes the ballot measure.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dospueblos.