Incumbent legislators in the 26th Legislative District know they need the support of voters in both political parties to get elected in the swing district that has routinely sent both Republicans and Democrats to the state Legislature.
Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, who is running for her first full term in the Senate, said “common sense and taking good care of people” helped her get re-elected in the House three times and elected to the Senate in a special election last year.
Her fellow 26th district lawmakers express similar sentiments. Now three challengers — two Democrats, one Republican — hope to make the same appeal, and flip the district in their respective party’s favor.
“The question is, which of the candidates is moving our state forward?” said Tacoma emergency room doctor Nathan Schlicher who is running against fellow Gig Harborite, Republican Rep. Jesse Young.
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Schlicher was appointed to the Senate to fill the vacancy left by U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer when he was elected to Congress. He lost the special election to keep his seat. Now he’s now vying for Angel’s former House seat against her appointed replacement, Young.
Two political newcomers are running for the other 26th district seats on the ballot. Olalla Democrat and retired educator Judy Arbogast is challenging Angel for the Senate. And dentist Michelle Caldier is looking to give the Republican party a unanimous hold on the district by ousting its sole Democrat in the Legislature, Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor. Seaquist has held the position since 2007.
This year’s election pales in comparison to last year’s for media attention and money spent. The special election between Angel and Schlicher garnered national media attention and became one of the state’s most expensive political campaigns.
This year, attention has shifted to legislative districts where a handful of Senate seats could be up for grabs. The 26th district isn’t considered one of those, said Todd Donovan, professor of political science at Western Washington University.
Even so, the six candidates have raised a considerable amount of money, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
As of the end of September, Angel had raised $232,661 and spent $92,864. Her challenger Arbogast raised $126,563 and spent $91,996. In the House race, Schlicher had brought in more than Young, with $243,563 to Young’s $135,526. But Young outspent Schlicher $81,899 to $69,916.
Caldier raised and spent more than incumbent Seaquist. Caldier listed $164,340 in contributions and expenses of $102,994. Seaquist had raised $144,952 and spent $90,974.
HOW TO FUND EDUCATION
Angel said the most frequent concern she’s hearing from voters is about chemical dependency, which she believers is “in epidemic form” in the state.
But the other candidates say people they meet are asking about paying for education and transportation projects — including state ferries and reducing tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
Caldier, who is challenging Seaquist, said the Legislature needs to fund education first to answer the state Supreme Court’s order to fully fund education. Once lawmakers meet the mandated requirement, then they can pay for other state programs and services, she said.
There is a lot of money that is “not being spent wisely,” Caldier said. She cited public health dental clinics where taxpayers pay up to $330 per patient per visit. Clinics only perform one service per visit, resulting in a high cost to taxpayers for people needing multiple services, Caldier said.
Savings can also be found by opening up the bidding process to build ferries in the state, she said.
“I want to figure out a way so that we can still at least keep those jobs in state and also make it so there is better competition,” Caldier said. That could include asking out-of-state companies to come to Washington to compete with Seattle-based Vigor Industrial that has the current contract, she said.
Seaquist finds fault with Caldier’s position to “fund education first.” He’s skeptical that cutting more programs is the way to find the money. He also doesn’t agree with those in his own party who say closing tax loopholes is the primary answer. The state needs “comprehensive tax reform,” he said.
“It’s going to take Democrat and Republican adults to sit there and negotiate with each other on something that both sides agree is a healthy way to structure our tax system so businesses and individuals are treated fairly,” he said.
That means adjusting the state’s sales tax, property tax, and business and occupation tax systems so they are less regressive, he said. Democrats Arbogast, who is challenging Angel, and Schlicher, who is challenging Young, agree tax reforms are needed, but none of the Democrats is endorsing an income tax.
“We need to look at some way of balancing so it’s not just a burden on the poor and middle class,” Arbogast said. “We need to make sure that those with the higher incomes are also paying their fair share.”
Schlicher said some possibilities of how to do that include a property tax exemption and a sales tax rebate for low-income residents.
Young, a health care industry technology consultant from Gig Harbor, said the state doesn’t need a tax increase – it needs to create new opportunities for revenue. Young proposes the state take over management of federal lands and use the money the land generates through logging to help pay for education.
He also has a proposal to offer tax incentives to technology businesses that locate in communities near military bases, a move that would help the 26th district because of its proximity to Naval Base Kitsap. Attracting more jobs would generate new revenue, he said.
“These aren’t like service sector, minimum wage jobs. They are six-figure, family-wage jobs,” Young said.
But before the Legislature starts talking about where to find the money, Angel wants to know where financial estimates of how much it would cost to fund education came from.
“I want to know first of all how did they come up with this figure? Was it OSPI (the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction)? If it is I’d like to see those reports. That’s one of those things I’ll be personally asking for,” she said.
The Legislature's Joint Task Force on Education Funding, which released its recommendations in late 2012, estimated it would cost at least another $3.5 billion every two years to meet the K-12 education funding requirements the Legislature already approved.
Some of those requirements were passed since Angel took office. She said she questions why the funding plan outlined in them was abandoned.
Angel thinks once legislators know where money is going and what’s missing they can evaluate and prioritize programs to fund.
“As this is the budget session, we’ve got to get as good of a ballpark picture as we can to budget,” she said.
CANDIDATES FOCUSING ON BRIDGE TOLLS
Another big item on the Legislature’s to-do list is a transportation package.
Schlicher and Seaquist said they won’t support a gas tax increase to pay for transportation projects if the proposal doesn’t address tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and provide adequate funding for the state’s ferry system.
Seaquist said he will continue to look for ways to fully fund the state’s ferry system and overhaul its management to make sure the system is run efficiently. He also wants to see bridge tolls, currently at $4.50 for Good to Go passholders, rolled back to $4, he said.
“My vote for a new tax package would be contingent on fully funding the ferry system and providing gas tax receipts to share everything above $4 on the bridge,” he said.
Arbogast agrees that the repayment structure of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge is unfair and the drivers shouldn’t be the only ones paying for it through tolls.
“It’s part of our transportation system and should be paid by everyone around,” she said. “We don’t do that with any other roads and certainly that’s not considered with any other bridges.”
Caldier would like to see the tolling system changed on the Narrows. It costs more per toll transaction on the Narrows than on the Route 520 bridge in Seattle because of state Route 16’s staffed toll booths, she said. She proposed setting up an option for people to pay at unmanned toll booths.
She also wants more promotion of Gig Harbor to help boost toll-paying trips across the bridge and stronger enforcement against those who don’t pay.
Schlicher and Young want to use financing to keep toll rate hikes at bay. Schlicher proposes refinancing the current bridge bonds and extending their repayment period by a year. And like Seaquist, he says any future transportation revenue package should have money devoted to bridge repayment.
Young suggests issuing new bonds to help meet the debt payments on the current bonds rather than relying strictly on tolls. Keeping toll rates low will encourage more people to move to the area and generate more bridge tolls that could be used to pay off the new bonds, Young said.
The only way Young would support a state transportation package would be if King County projects aren’t included, he said.
“There is no way I’m going to vote to have my district continually put last because King County is going to continue to suck all the money,” Young said.
Angel has another approach: Rather than pass an expensive package with multiple big projects, start with urgent projects like the extension of state Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma. That project will generate economic activity and taxes that can be used for the next project, she said.
“Maybe you don’t lump all of these together in a great big package,” she said. “But you start taking bites out of the apple.”