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Originally published Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 10:51 PM

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McKenna, Inslee spar over budget, health care and education

In an hourlong debate, Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna clashed Thursday night over who was better positioned reform state government and free up new money for public schools.

Seattle Times staff reporters

Introduction, opening statements

Candidates on the economy

Candidates on education

Candidates on job creation

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Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna clashed Thursday night over who was better positioned to reform state government and free up new money for public schools.

In an hourlong Seattle debate broadcast on television stations across the state, Inslee repeatedly talked up his plan to bring "lean management" experts into state government, and tagged McKenna as part of the Olympia establishment.

"Look, I haven't been in Olympia for seven years," said Inslee, referring to McKenna's tenure as state attorney general. "I am sort of the new person there." But McKenna mocked Inslee's claim to outsider status, noting the Democrat and former eight-term congressman had served in the state Legislature before going to Washington, D.C.

"His attempts to portray himself as an outsider just arriving on the scene just aren't credible," McKenna said, arguing Inslee would offer "the same old D.C. gridlock."

The debate broke little new ground, though the candidates staked out differences on issues from gay marriage to education funding.

McKenna showed a less combative side than in some previous matchups, including an appearance earlier this month in Yakima, where he repeatedly mocked Inslee's answers for lacking specifics.

Inslee, meanwhile, kept up his recent line of attack on a complex "property tax swap" that McKenna has endorsed to help ensure the state is paying for basic education at public schools.

Inslee continued to hammer McKenna for days about a proposal to simultaneously increase the state property-tax levy for schools and reduce local school levies by the same amount.

The idea, pitched by some Democratic and Republican lawmakers, would help the state meet its duty to fully fund basic education. The state Supreme Court has ruled the state cannot foist its responsibility to adequately fund schools on local school districts.

But Inslee called the tax swap a gimmick, noting it would not increase the amount of money available for schools.

"It may help Olympia politicians on paper, but it does not help students in the classroom where it counts," Inslee said.

McKenna accused Inslee of cynically attacking the idea and said the Democrat had no plan of his own to deal with the Supreme Court's admonition that the state must cut reliance on local school levies.

Both candidates argued they could find additional money for public schools without raising taxes.

Inslee said he'd require state agencies to adopt the "lean management" principles that have been used by private companies such as Boeing and Virginia Mason to improve efficiency and save money. He also said the state could reduce health-care costs by pushing wellness programs and other reforms adopted by King County.

In an interview after the debate Inslee said he would veto tax increases if they were passed by the Democratically controlled Legislature.

McKenna said the first thing the state has to do is "live within our means," noting the "leaders in Olympia" over the past few decades have systematically lowered the percentage of the state budget going to schools and colleges. He highlighted his plan to "put education and our children first" by capping growth of other parts of the budget.

Asked about their views on social issues, Inslee said he was the only candidate "you can trust" to protect abortion rights, and he highlighted his support for Referendum 74, the gay marriage law up for a vote next month.

McKenna opposes R-74 and said he would vote to retain the current state of civil protections for same-sex couples. Although he opposes abortion, McKenna said he'd uphold the current laws that protect abortion rights.

Both candidates said the state needs to be wary of gun violence, with McKenna touting his work on the issue as attorney general, including passage of a law seeking to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people.

Asked about an expansion of Medicaid as part of the new national health-care law, Inslee wholeheartedly embraced it as a way to cover the poor, noting the public already pays for the uninsured through emergency room visits. McKenna was more skeptical, saying he'd negotiate with the federal government for cost reforms and try to push more people to private insurance coverage.

Ballots in the all-mail election go out next week and must be postmarked by Nov. 6.

The race is considered close and one of the most-watched in the nation.

McKenna is trying to end a long losing string of Republican losses in Washington gubernatorial races. The last Republican governor of the state was John Spellman, who left office in early 1985.

The debate, held in Seattle and moderated by Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson, was co-sponsored by five Seattle TV stations and broadcast across the state.

It was the fourth time Inslee and McKenna have debated, following events in Spokane, Vancouver and Yakima.

The candidates are scheduled to debate once more: next Tuesday at a match sponsored by The Seattle Times and KING 5.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.

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