Steven Lane | The Columbian
Attorney General Rob McKenna, left, and former congressman Jay Inslee, candidates for governor, debate at the WSUV campus in Vancouver, Wash., on Wednesday.
VANCOUVER, Wash. — The candidates for governor of Washington state said Wednesday that voters can look at the past as a guide to who is best to take the state into the future.
In a debate at Washington State University’s campus in Vancouver, Republican Rob McKenna said it’s clear that Democrats running Olympia have been taking the state in the wrong direction. He noted that the share of budget dollars dedicated to education has been declining and suggested that voters elect Democrat Jay Inslee if they want to follow the same course.
“You can choose that path that we’ve followed for the past 28 years, or you can choose a new direction,” said McKenna, the state’s attorney general.
During one volley on that issue, Inslee shot back: “I have not been the person who has been in Olympia the last seven years.” He distanced himself from Gov. Chris Gregoire, saying there was no good reason that state government hasn’t embraced so-called lean efficiencies that spawned from the manufacturing industry.
Inslee also questioned McKenna’s own track record on education spending. He noted that McKenna praised a Republican-led budget proposal earlier this year that included cuts to education.
“We have to look at these things to see who has meat on the bones,” Inslee said.
McKenna said he supported the bipartisan nature of the budget but opposed the education cuts.
Washington hasn’t elected a Republican governor in three decades, but McKenna and Inslee are locked in one of the nation’s most-watched gubernatorial races, with both sides raising about $8 million for their campaigns and outsiders committing millions more.
Both candidates said the state needs to focus on economic growth to raise revenues for state government and invest more money in education. Both also talked about making state government more efficient and curbing health care costs. McKenna proposes to cap non-education spending growth at 6 percent.
McKenna and Inslee previously held an economy-focused debate in June.
Because of a Supreme Court ruling that found that Washington has failed to adequately fund education, state lawmakers believe they need to invest another $1 billion in education in the next biennium.
Even without that money, state officials are projecting shortfalls in the hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years — and even that assumes state government will have growing revenues.
Both McKenna and Inslee believe they can balance the budget and invest more money in education without raising taxes.
McKenna also expressed deep skepticism about the expansion of Medicaid that would occur under President Barack Obama’s health care law. The federal government would cover 100 percent of the expansion during the first years, and 90 percent afterward.
McKenna noted that perhaps one-third of Washington residents could be eligible for Medicaid under the expansion.
He said he would not “categorically reject” the expansion and left open the possibility for alternatives, arguing that there are other ways to get people covered.
“We’re going to look at what we can afford,” McKenna said after the debate.
Inslee said people with health insurance face a hidden tax that goes to cover the cost of uninsured people. He said it is a good fiscal decision for the state to accept the full expansion and argued that the health benefits of better coverage can have an economic benefit.
“The fiscal impact of this will be negative if we don’t expand Medicaid,” Inslee said after the debate.
The two candidates disagreed on how to handle the $3.5 billion plan to replace the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River — a crucial issue in southwest Washington.
State officials have said that construction is likely to begin at the end of 2014, assuming that funding from Washington, Oregon and the federal government fall into place.
Inslee said the bridge will not get built until the stakeholders can figure out how to get a light rail on the bridge.
McKenna said that it wasn’t clear to him that people in the Vancouver area wanted a light rail as part of the reconstruction.