In the first gubernatorial debate, Rob McKenna was no doubt ready for Jay Inslee to bring up last winter’s budget coup in Olympia, when Republicans took over the floor of the state Senate with help from disaffected Democrats.
But instead, Inslee wanted to talk about another budget coup – 11 years ago in the King County Council Chambers, when McKenna was on the receiving end.
That time, it was Republicans who defected to the Democrats, putting an early end to McKenna’s two-year tenure as lead budget writer.
Maybe it’s an incident McKenna would rather forget – it appears he has at least forgotten some of the details. He fumbled the facts while sparring with his Democratic opponent.
His campaign says he was doing his best to recall a long-ago event. Let’s recount what was said and what actually happened.
WHAT THE CANDIDATES SAID
Democrat Inslee tried to paint Republican McKenna as ineffective, saying: “You’ve been given budget authority one time, as a King County council chair. You wrote a budget that was $54 million out of balance. Your Republican colleagues removed you in what they called being deposed, effectively deposed. If you failed in King County, why should the voters trust you in the state of Washington?”
In McKenna’s telling, he was fighting to keep taxes low.
He was budget chairman for two years, McKenna said: “In the first year we successfully passed a budget, a budget which for the first time in the county’s recent history did not take the maximum property tax increase. The second year I opposed a tax increase that was new that was proposed by one of my Republican colleagues and the Democrats on the County Council. And so yes, they passed a budget that had the tax increase they wanted, that I opposed. That’s why I didn’t support the tax increase. That’s why one of my Republican colleagues joined other Democrats to take over the budget process, and that’s why they got to pass the budget they wanted.”
Inslee replied that more than “just one disgruntled Republican” broke away.
Let’s take Inslee’s accusations one at a time. Although he seemed to imply McKenna wrote a single budget, he’s actually talking about two spending proposals, one in 2000, one in 2001. McKenna was the chairman of the council’s budget committee (Inslee left out the word “budget” in describing his rival’s job).
Was the 2000 budget written by McKenna really $54 million out of balance? That’s what then-King County Executive Ron Sims, a Democrat, said when he vetoed the plan.
Whether it’s true largely depends on the council’s intentions. Most of the alleged shortfall involved a sales tax increase for transit, which had been approved by voters but not yet by the council. Then-Councilman Chris Vance, a Republican, said at the time that the council had been poised to approve the tax; it just hadn’t received the paperwork. The transit tax was approved once the council and Sims reached a budget deal, after the veto.
Vance and McKenna said the real issue with the budget was a disagreement over how much to increase property taxes, which McKenna repeated in this month’s debate. It’s true that Sims had wanted a larger increase than Republicans.
McKenna would praise the final deal reached with Sims, with its lower-than-the-maximum property tax increase.
The coup followed a year later.
On the issue of how many Republicans took part in the takeover, Inslee, not McKenna, had it right.
Three of the council’s seven Republicans – Jane Hague of Bellevue, Pete von Reichbauer of Federal Way and Louise Miller of Woodinville – joined with all but one Democrat to reject McKenna’s budget and push their own budget through the council.
How about McKenna’s description of what caused the split? He said in the debate that it was his opposition to a particular tax “that would hurt a certain set of small businesses.” His campaign said he was referring to an increase in the tax on card rooms, proposed by Hague to pay for arts programs.
A news release McKenna issued at the time about the budget doesn’t link it to the card-room tax. Nor do his quotes in The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
He did mention his opponents’ inclusion of funding for arts, which he said came at the expense of other, more important spending, such as for law enforcement in then-Sheriff Dave Reichert’s office. But the council dropped the minicasino tax and disconnected it from the arts spending.
The budget didn’t increase the tax, as McKenna claimed.
His campaign spokesman, Charles McCray, said: “It happened 11 years ago. When asked on stage, Rob remembered his opposition to raising taxes on small businesses to pay for arts funding. Rob does his best to answer questions on his record and positions thoroughly. I suppose he could avoid occasionally misspeaking if he ducked interviews and dodged questions like Mr. Inslee.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
McKenna had key facts wrong about the takeover and the budget it produced. Inslee mostly had the facts right, though he didn’t tell the whole story. Whether those facts prove Inslee’s claim that McKenna “failed,” or that he was standing on principle, is a matter of opinion.
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