McKenna, Inslee meet in 1st gubernatorial debate in Spokane
Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee, meeting in their first gubernatorial debate, agreed that more money should go toward education. But they sparred over charter schools, the economy and the supermajority requirement to raise taxes.
Seattle Times political reporter
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SPOKANE — Meeting in their first gubernatorial debate Tuesday, Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna both said they'd try to find an additional $1 billion or more for public schools in their first budget as governor — and insisted it could be done without raising taxes.
Sharing the stage at the Bing Crosby Theater in downtown Spokane, Inslee and McKenna clashed on other topics — from whether the state should allow public charter schools to supermajority requirements for tax increases.
But when it came to education funding, which is called out in the state Constitution as the "paramount duty" of the state, Inslee and McKenna seemed largely in agreement.
A recent state Supreme Court decision found the state has been failing to fulfill that constitutional obligation to schools.
Both gubernatorial candidates, when pressed by the moderator, public-radio correspondent Austin Jenkins, said they would try to find an additional $1 billion for schools to ensure the state is doing its duty.
McKenna, the state attorney general, said a $3 billion shift wouldn't be a stretch — but a spokesman later said McKenna had misspoken and was only committed to finding $1 billion in his first budget.
Gov. Chris Gregoire recently said boosting public-schools spending substantially would require a new dedicated tax source and called on her successor to make it happen.
But McKenna dismissed the notion of asking voters for more money.
"We have a dedicated revenue source for K-12 education," he said. "It's called the general fund."
Inslee, a former seven-term congressman from Bainbridge Island, touted his plans to encourage job growth through incentives to emerging industries such as biotech and clean power. Growing the economy would lead to more tax revenue for schools, he said.
There were no dramatic revelations in the debate, which in some ways was upstaged by a livelier matchup between attorney-general candidates earlier in the day. Both debates were sponsored by the Association of Washington Business at its spring meeting.
McKenna largely stuck to his campaign theme that a new direction is needed in Olympia after nearly three decades of control by Democrats.
Inslee said he was focused on job creation and making Washington a leader in clean energy and other new technologies.
The two clashed on two big issues that voters may face this fall.
McKenna said he supports Initiative 1185, which again would ensure that a two-thirds vote of the Legislature is needed to raise taxes — a requirement that voters have endorsed repeatedly.
Democrats have sued the state, and a King County Superior Court judge ruled last month that the law is unconstitutional. The matter ultimately will be decided by the state Supreme Court, and McKenna said he is confident the two-thirds requirement will be upheld.
But Inslee called the requirement unfair. "It is a principle of democracy that we have one person, one vote," he said, arguing that the two-thirds rule gave lawmakers who oppose taxes "one and a half votes."
The candidates also diverged on whether to allow public charter schools in the state. Although voters have rejected such schools in the past, an initiative campaign has been launched to put the issue to a vote again this fall.
"I am going to try to put a billion in the next budget, or more, for education," Inslee said. Charter schools, he said, would only pull money away from public schools, and he added that his education plan calls for new grants for innovation in existing schools.
But McKenna said Inslee was being misleading, since the charter schools also would be public. While not a panacea, "they should be part of the mix," McKenna said.
Asked about college tuition increases, Inslee linked McKenna to a budget proposed by legislative Republicans this year that would have cut an additional $74 million from education, including colleges and universities.
McKenna said he called Senate Republican budget writers to ask them to back off that cut. He also said it was "the folks who have run Olympia for the past 28 years" who had "decimated" higher-education funding.
One testy exchange occurred when McKenna asked Inslee why he voted in Congress to loosen home-loan requirements to allow people with lower incomes to buy homes with no down payments — a factor in the housing crisis.
Inslee responded by accusing McKenna of blaming the economic collapse on regular homeowners instead of on Wall Street banks. McKenna retorted that Inslee was trying to change the subject.
Asked about environmental regulations, McKenna said he generally supports "harmonizing" state environmental laws with federal standards, when possible, to streamline the rules.
Inslee, who has been endorsed by the state's leading environmental groups, attacked that comment, saying what McKenna was really talking about was rolling back state standards on clean air and other protections.
Inslee highlighted his support of various tax breaks to help certain small businesses grow. McKenna said tax breaks, if used, should be distributed more evenly through the economy.
"How many of you favor a plan that gives your competitors or an entire industry an advantage?" McKenna asked the audience.
Inslee remained vague on some issues, as he has throughout the campaign, refusing to say when the state ought to go to voters with a transportation package to fix aging roads and bridges.
"The right time is when we gain the trust of Washingtonians. ... That is not a calendar date," he said.
McKenna said he supports moving a transportation package ahead in 2013 or 2014.
No additional debates have been scheduled, but Inslee and McKenna have agreed to participate in a pair of forums in Seattle in late June.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628
On Twitter @Jim_Brunner