SEATTLE — Washington’s candidates for governor intensified their rivalry Thursday, quarreling in a tart debate that focused on economics while also straying into questions over personal integrity.
With just a week before ballots go out to voters, Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna found little common ground, disagreeing on matters such as how to constrain state government, how to stir job growth and how to implement Obamacare.
On the issue of the budget, which will likely dominate the opening months of the next governor’s term, Inslee said he’d like to find savings in health care growth and by improving performance of state government. McKenna would take a more blunt approach, explicitly capping spending growth in non-educationparts of state budget at 6 percent per biennium, and he suggested Inslee’s plan wouldn’t work.
“It’s going to take some real discipline in the budget,” McKenna said.
Inslee shot back that McKenna was supporting a gimmick that would raise property taxes on some residents during a process in which the state would take charge of more funding of education while lessening the burden on local governments. While McKenna hasn’t specifically outlined how his plan would work, he has generally endorsed proposals floated by state lawmakers from both parties.
State economic leaders project that lawmakers will need to find some $1 billion in savings or cuts to properly balance the state budget in the next biennium. Because of a state Supreme Court ruling that determined the state isn’t properly funding education, lawmakers are also looking to add another $1 billion to education in that next two-year budget cycle.
Both candidates expect the state to have growing revenues in the coming years and don’t think new taxes are needed. Inslee said part of his plan to fund education is based on bringing in extra revenue by stirring stronger job growth, which he would do by trying to cultivate some industries such as clean energy and life sciences much like the state previously did in aerospace and computers.
“We invent, we create and we build in the state of Washington,” Inslee said.
McKenna questioned Inslee’s targeted jobs plan, saying it would pick winners and losers. He made note of an Associated Press story this week that found Inslee had purchased stock in a solar company before aiding the industry in both a book and congressional action.
Inslee had said that he didn’t see a conflict of interest, but McKenna hammered him on that point, saying it was a conflict of interest and that Inslee’s new jobs plans would set the stage for more.
“All you have to do is be ethical to avoid conflicts of interest,” McKenna said.
The Republican said his jobs plan would focus on lowering costs for businesses, saying that business leaders frequently complain about burdens in the state. Inslee countered by pointing to a report that found the state to be one of the country’s most business-friendly.
Thursday’s debate offered the candidates their most prominent stage yet, with the meeting airing live on several TV stations in the region and timed to draw in viewers who had tuned in earlier in the night to the vice presidential debate. The candidates didn’t disappoint, laying out competing visions in which there was rarely agreement:
• On the issue of President Barack Obama’s health care law, Inslee said implementation was necessary in order to avoid the hidden cost of having uninsured people getting treatment in emergency rooms. McKenna urged caution before expanding Medicaid under the law, arguing that the state may be left on the hook with costs it can’t shoulder.
• On the issue of gay marriage, McKenna said he wouldn’t vote to for it. Inslee supports the referendum to approve gay marriage.
• On the issue of legalized marijuana, a proposal that Washington voters will decided on this year, Inslee said he would work to defend the decision of voters. McKenna questioned the consequences, noting that the federal government may take action and that the law could threaten the state’s existing medical marijuana system.
McKenna and Inslee are locked in what is widely considered one of the most competitive races for governor in the country. Both sides have raised about $10 million, and outside groups are also flooding the state with cash, trying to influence the election’s outcome.
A recent Elway Poll showed the candidates running about even. The candidates are set to debate one more time next week.