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Some Business Groups Leery Of Locke His Support For Labor A Big Factor In Loss Of Several Endorsements

Gary Locke, the Democratic nominee for governor, doesn’t call himself a liberal. But some business leaders say he should.

During Locke’s 11 years in the House of Representatives, business groups rated his performance in the basement. Meanwhile, Locke voted with the Washington State Labor Council 90 to 100 percent of the time.

“You don’t get a zero rating if you are a moderate, period,” said Carolyn Logue of the Washington chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. The small-business organization gave Locke’s performance a goose egg in 1993.

Some business groups already have decided who to support in the race, and it’s not Locke.

Logue’s group and the Building Industry Association of Washington both decided to support GOP candidate Ellen Craswell last week.

“Gary Locke is not a moderate and his legislative record demonstrates that,” said Tom McCabe of the builders’ group. “Do a checklist on the guy. Taxes. Spending. Labor. Housing. Health care … Where is he a moderate?”

Locke said no Democrat would have earned a high rating from business in 1993, a year in which the bottom dropped out of the economy and legislators scrambled to plug a $1.7 billion hole in the budget.

“We had to take a lot of tough votes and I know business didn’t like them, but the last thing I was going to do was cut education,” Locke said.

During 1993, Locke voted to:

Raise the minimum wage.

Liberalize unemployment compensation regulations so even some workers who left their job voluntarily could collect.

Increase employers’ workers’ compensation insurance premiums an estimated 6.2 percent.

Require all employers to pay half the cost of providing health care benefits to their employees.

Support a gay civil rights bill.

Raise business and occupation taxes, fees and tuition by $1.2 billion.

Locke also opposed Initiative 601, the state tax and spending cap approved by voters in 1994.

He sponsored three bills throughout the course of his legislative career to create a state income tax, but now says the income tax is a “dead issue.”

Under the budgets Locke helped write, state general fund spending grew from $9.2 billion in 1987 to $16.1 billion in the 1993-5 biennium. The number of state employees grew by 17,057 to the equivalent of 86,733 full-time workers.

Locke also helped write the state budget in 1993 that required $1.2 billion in tax hikes and tuition and fee increases to balance.

“I have long said those taxes were raised in a fiscal emergency, and that I am committed to rolling them back,” Locke said. He also plans targeted tax relief to help businesses expand and train workers.

It’s his opponent who would hurt business, Locke said. Craswell’s plan to cut state taxes more than 30 percent in four years would eviscerate higher education, Locke predicted. And that’s a direct hit on business.

“A highly educated work force is key to a strong economy,” he said.

Sheryl Hutchison, Locke’s campaign press secretary, said voters need to consider Locke’s record as King County executive. In his current job, Locke has pushed through cuts in county administrative costs while adding about 1,000 direct-service workers, from school bus drivers to public health nurses and police officers.

Taxes did not go up, and overall county employment dropped by 100 positions.

Some King County business owners also give Locke high praise for his work as county executive to streamline a badly bottlenecked building permit process.

“It used to take three years to get permits for a five-acre site,” said Republican Bill Finkbeiner, a residential builder who’s supporting Locke in the race. “Now it takes one.

“People talk about him being a big spender and big government guy but that’s not our experience. He came in here and laid off people and still got the job done better.”

Russ Segmer, a shareholder in the second-largest commercial real estate firm in the state, praised Locke’s participation in a coalition of business and political leaders working to get a tricky development project off the ground near Seattle’s Duwamish River.

The project involves redevelopment of old, contaminated industrial sites and resolution of complicated issues. “He didn’t give it lip service,” Segmer said. “He has worked from the outset to build consensus, and get good information to create good solutions to problems.”

But Locke keeps hurting himself in the eyes of business leaders. Right after winning the primary, Locke compounded businesses’ concern about his record in the Legislature by telling labor leaders he’d veto any section of a bill they asked.

Locke said he stands by the remark, which he made in the context of a promise to defend workers from unreasonable rollbacks of workplace safety protections.

The incumbent, Democrat Mike Lowry, has also made it harder for Locke to woo business support, some say. Lowry won in 1992 in part by convincing key business leaders he had moderated his liberal views.

Then Lowry turned around and considered tax increases before even taking office, and steered the Legislature through what many business leaders remember as a nightmare session.

“It’s kind of like they feel once-scorched,” said Don Brunell of the Association of Washington Business.

“Smaller business in particular are saying while they don’t agree with everything Ellen stands for, they can’t afford to take the risk with Gary. There is a lot of skepticism about him out there.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo