In a debate hosted by Seattle University this week, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Bill Bryant outlined disparate visions for the state’s future. One key difference was around how to better fund K-12 basic education to comply with the high-stakes 2012 McCleary case ruling by the State Supreme Court. Bryant called for funneling future state revenue growth into K-12 and trimming the state budget of ineffective spending. Inslee underscored elimination of existing employer tax incentives.
Divergence On New Carbon Cap Rule
Environmental policy was another area of sharp divergence. Inslee also touted a new carbon cap rule he pushed through without legislative approval, in an administrative rulemaking proceeding. It was approved by the state Department of Ecology earlier this month, and has already prompted a legal challenge by a coalition of employer groups.
Inslee said the rule was a “sophisticated” and “fair” policy needed to combat climate change, which he called an “extreme threat to the state of Washington.” Bryant warned the rule will drive up home heating and vehicle fuel costs and send jobs out of state while having “zero environmental impact.” He added, “for a governor that’s malpractice.”
The Association of Washington Business has warned the rule will cost the state economy 34,000 jobs, and $7.3 billion in sales by 2035. Small business would absorb almost half the hit, according to AWB.
Bryant Takes Aim At Inslee On Education
Bryant was also pointed in his criticism of Inslee’s education strategy. He said it is “entirely impossible” to explain the difference in their plans to fully fund basic education because the governor still does not have one. “In 2013, there was no plan,” he said. “In 2014, there was no plan. In 2015, he vowed action in 2016.”
Earlier this year a bipartisan legislative task force was created under SB 6195 to craft an education funding plan by the end of the 2017 session. Some state lawmakers say it will involve a voter referendum in November, 2017.
Bryant claimed Inslee has attended only half of one meeting out of five the task force has held. “He has no plan,” Bryant said. “He has failed at the state’s paramount responsibility, and that means he’s a failed governor.”
Inslee defended his track record, citing state investments in early childhood education such as all-day kindergarten, and college tuition cuts as part of the 2015-17 biennial budget. That same budget also allocated $1.3 billion in spending on basic education. “That’s not a plan,” he said. “That’s progress.”
Differences On K-12 Funding Sources
The two also sparred on how and where exactly to find needed K-12 funding for McCleary compliance. Bryant hopes to dedicate half the state budget to basic ed. However, that “requires making government better, not bigger,” he said.
“We need to scrutinize how we’re currently spending money in the budget,” he added. “I want to look at every program, every agency and every tax incentive, and if it’s not moving us forward, we’re going to fix it or eliminate it.”
The most recent analysis by the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council (ERFC) now anticipates $334 million more than earlier forecasted in state revenue for the current biennial budget covering fiscal years 2015 to 2017. The new ERFC report also projects $125 million more revenue for the state than had been expected for the 2017-19 budget lawmakers will begin to tackle in January.
Inslee Declines To Take Pledge Against New Income Tax
Both candidates said they oppose a state income tax, which some stakeholders see as a way to pay for the roughly $3 billion shift of K-12 funding from local school districts to the state in coming years.
“I do not believe it is right for the state of Washington,” Inslee said of an income tax. “I’ve had that position since 1989 when I first ran for legislature.”
However, Inslee avoided taking a pledge to veto a state income tax, when asked by a debate moderator. Bryant attempted to have Inslee answer the question directly (at the 15:00 mark in the debate) but was told by a debate moderator he could not talk directly to Inslee under the debate rules.
First-term Tax Hike Proposals At Center Stage
Bryant pointed to a promise by Inslee during the 2012 election to veto any new taxes, only to later propose a capital gains tax and taxes on cigarettes, bottled water and oil refineries.
Jason Mercier at the Washington Policy Center notes that all states with a capital gains tax also have a state income tax because “because capital gains are taxed as part of the income tax code.”
Distinctions On Minimum Wage, ST3
Bryant also registered concerns tied to a statewide ballot measure to boost the minimum wage to $13.50 by 2020. He said he supports minimum wage increases only in regions where the cost of living has outpaced inflation. Inslee has previously voiced his support for the measure.
The incumbent and challenger also butted heads on transportation and the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 (ST3) spending package on the ballot this November in Central Puget Sound.
Inslee supports ST3 but later added “this is not the only thing we’re going to do in transportation.” He cited progress on the SR 520 bridge replacement project initiated by his predecessor Christine Gregoire, and the addition of a shoulder lane on a portion of I-405.
“I’m for building infrastructure, I’m for the state moving forward,” Inslee said.
Bryant is opposed to the ST3 proposal and believes the state should focus more on “public transit that people use because it works” and local infrastructure improvements.“We can engineer, not socially engineer, people to get to work on time and be able to get home to see their families at night,” he added.
Miscues at the Washington Department of Transportation on the I-405 tolling rollout, plus well-publicized debacles during Inslee’s first term in the state prison and mental health systems figured into a broader critique of the incumbent’s leadership skills by Bryant during the debate.
Inslee appears to be far ahead, at least according to data from a leading Washington pollster, Stuart Elway. The latest Elway Poll, from August, shows Inslee leading Bryant 48 percent to 36 percent. If Inslee is re-elected, he may well still face a Republican-majority State Senate.