Rob McKenna and Jay Inslee both said forcefully Wednesday that they would not propose tax increases if elected governor, despite looming obligations to public schools.
At a debate at Washington State University Vancouver, Republican Attorney General McKenna called out Democratic former U.S. Rep. Inslee for leaving himself wiggle room in statements on taxes. But Inslee sharpened his stance after the debate, saying: “No, I am not going to propose taxes. I do not believe they’re right for the State of Washington.”
McKenna had a similar promise: “I am not proposing and I will not propose tax-rate increases.”
That doesn’t include voter-approved increases such as for transportation, he said afterward. And both candidates are open to closing unspecified tax loopholes.
Still, both call for spending more money on education, following a state Supreme Court ruling that the Legislature has neglected public schools. To pay for it all, the rivals both make optimistic predictions that state revenue will grow – and that they can tamp down health care costs to keep them from eating up that new income.
Future health costs will hinge partly on state government’s decisions on federal health care reform.
McKenna joined a multi-state lawsuit challenging President Barack Obama’s health law. The Supreme Court preserved the law but said states can opt out of a key piece of it, the expansion of Medicaid federal-state health insurance to somewhat less-needy patients.
The federal government would provide most of the money for the new Medicaid patients, but states would have to chip in. The candidates staked out opposing ground Wednesday on the expansion. Inslee supports it, saying it will help “get people out of the emergency room.”
McKenna said the full expansion would mean “nearly one in three Washington residents” would be eligible for Medicaid, calling it “the wrong vision for our state.”
He said after the debate he wouldn’t “categorically reject” the money, but that “there are other options to get people covered.”
It wasn’t all about budgets and policy Wednesday. Some light-hearted questions gave the candidates a chance to agree on their allegiance to the Huskies – despite the WSU location – and disagree on whether a rainy-day in the Northwest calls for an umbrella (McKenna yes, Inslee no).
A question from the public about why liquor costs so much in Washington despite voters’ privatization of state liquor stores brought out another disagreement: McKenna said it’s too soon to tell how prices will shake out or whether Initiative 1183 is working, while Inslee said the initiative was a mistake.
McKenna, who is trying to become the first Republican elected governor in Washington since John Spellman in 1980, repeatedly tied Inslee to the Democrats who have mostly controlled Olympia in recent years, and who have cut education funding as part of coping with anemic revenue.
Inslee in turn noted that Republicans who seized control of the budget process in the state Senate this year proposed a budget that also would have cut education. Both parties eventually dropped their early proposals for further education cuts. McKenna distanced himself from those proposals.
McKenna prodded Inslee on whether he would reverse any of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s policies. Inslee said he would install the kind of management techniques used by companies such as Boeing – something Gregoire says she is already doing.
It was the first debate since a primary election and a flood of television ads before it, which served as many voters’ introduction to the candidates.
The primary gave a slim majority of the vote to Democrats and a narrow lead to Inslee over McKenna. But it’s hard to say how much to read into those results. A much larger number of participants is expected Nov. 6, and polls show a tight race.
More ads are on the way – from political party organizations in Washington, D.C., and from interest groups both local and national. The Republican Governors Association and a political committee known as Our Washington, funded largely by the Democratic Governors Association and unions, have both reserved television air time in the fall.
The RGA has directed more than $4 million into the race. Our Washington has raised roughly the same amount, including more than $2 million from the DGA, which upped its ante last week.