The race for an open state House seat in west Pierce County is one of the three most crowded legislative battles in Washington this year.
Five people are looking to replace Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood, who is leaving the House to run for the state Senate.
They are: Democrat John Connelly, a former bricklayer who now works for Sears; Kevin Heiderich, an independent candidate who is a consultant for medical marijuana businesses; Democrat Christine Kilduff, an attorney and president of the University Place School Board; Republican Monique Trudnowski, a restaurateur; and Republican Paul Wagemann, a school board member and retired U.S. Marine Corps officer.
The candidates are competing to represent the 28th District, which includes Lakewood, University Place, Fircrest, Steilacoom and parts of Tacoma. The politically moderate district has a history of electing Republicans and Democrats.
Only two other legislative contests in Washington have drawn as many hopefuls this year: the race to replace retiring Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, D-Lynnwood, and the battle for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle.
All the candidates vying for Green’s seat say they are focused on policies that would build the middle class and stimulate the economy.
But they disagree on what the Legislature can do to make that happen – particularly when it comes to whether to raise the statewide minimum wage and whether to increase taxes to fund schools and road projects.
One of the biggest challenges lawmakers will face in the coming years is how to raise money for K-12 education. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the Legislature wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund public schools and ordered lawmakers to do so by 2018.
Trudnowski said she supports directing all new state revenues toward education, but doesn’t think the state should raise taxes to help boost school funding.
“In the real world, if you want a new car or you want a new house, you can’t just go make new money,” Trudnowski said. “You have to live within your means.”
Wagemann said reforms to the state’s education system are necessary to ensure money is being spent wisely. He suggested individual education plans for all students and said the state needs to explore options, such as year-round school, which he said would cut down on students’ summer learning loss.
“I don’t know if throwing more money at it is the answer,” said Wagemann, who serves on the Clover Park School Board.
The other candidates, however, say ending tax exemptions would be a good way to help bridge the state’s education funding gap.
“The starting point clearly is tax loopholes – we begin with that,” Kilduff said. “We need as a state to constantly be re-evaluating and assessing those as time goes on, and not just let outdated tax loopholes stay on the books.”
Connelly agreed that ending certain tax incentives is a good place to start. He said a tax break for extracted fuels – which benefits oil refineries – is one that should end.
“You can’t discount the cost of these ridiculous loopholes,” Connelly said.
But Heiderich said ending tax breaks will not be enough to meet the demands of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision. Legislative staff have estimated that complying with the court order will cost at least $3.5 billion between now and 2018.
Heiderich said that the Legislature might have to consider restructuring the state’s tax system – and possibly increasing taxes on certain industries — to fully fund education.
“Some people would say, ‘Do corporate citizens really have a responsibility to educate the children in the state?’ I would say, ‘Yes, they do,’ ” Heiderich said.
Another key issue facing lawmakers is how to fund road and transit projects throughout Washington, and whether to increase the state’s gas tax to pay for the work.
Trudnowski said she would support a transportation tax package “that includes reforms, such as holding the ... Department of Transportation accountable for keeping projects on time and on budget.”
Kilduff said she supports increasing accountability in the Department of Transportation, but that state can’t necessarily afford to wait for a tax package that includes reforms.
“Right now we have an urgent need,” she said. “We need to reach an agreement.”
Wagemann said the problem lies with how the state is spending its money: Too much is being spent on mass transit projects that few people use, he said.
“We are bringing lots of revenue in – the question is, are we spending it in the right places?” Wagemann said. “We don’t have the population density to support the amount of money we’re spending on transit.”
Heiderich, the independent candidate, disagrees. “We’ve only been screaming since 1993 for more mass transit,” he said.
Similarly, Connelly said that more mass transit could help reduce traffic on Interstate 5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which he described as a “disaster” during rush hour.
He said the state needs to transition away from relying on gas tax revenues, especially now that more people are now driving hybrids and electric vehicles that are more fuel-efficient. In the short-term, however, he said he would support a gas tax increase for a limited period of no more than 10 years.
“The gas tax isn’t something that’s sustainable,” Connelly said.
Whether to raise the state’s minimum wage is a recurring theme in the campaign, with Connelly coming out strongest in support of increasing it.
Connelly said a minimum wage increase would stimulate the economy by giving people more money to spend at restaurants and other small businesses. That in turn would generate more sales tax and business tax revenues, improving the state’s budget outlook, he said.
Connelly said he thinks increasing the state’s minimum wage to about $12.50 an hour would be appropriate. Washington’s minimum wage is now $9.32 an hour, the highest in the country.
Kilduff, the other Democrat in the race, also said she would support increasing the minimum wage to above $12 an hour.
“When you’re at $9.32 an hour, it is very difficult to raise a family on those kinds of wages,” Kilduff said.
Also backing a minimum wage increase is Heiderich, the independent candidate, though he warned that the state shouldn’t follow the lead of Seattle and SeaTac and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“That’s pretty excessive,” Heiderich said.
The two Republican candidates, Trudnowski and Wagemann, are against increasing the minimum wage. Both said doing so would hurt the economy by decreasing businesses’ profit margins.
“Increasing the price of creating jobs will not help us create more jobs,” said Trudnowski, who co-owns the Adriatic Grill restaurant near the Tacoma Mall.
Wagemann said a higher minimum wage would make it harder for students and young workers to find employment and could drive businesses out of state.
“These minimum wage jobs are really training grounds for people to start moving up,” Wagemann said.
So far, Trudnowski has raised the most among the five candidates, with her campaign reporting $57,000 in donations as of Monday, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Kilduff’s campaign had raised the second-most at $34,700. Wagemann’s campaign reported $11,842 in donations. Connelly had raised $7,228, and Heiderich had collected $2,700.