BLAINE, Wash. – After a bruising campaign challenge that’s focused heavily on state spending, Gov. Chris Gregoire pledged for the first time Thursday night to not raise taxes during a weak economy.
“I do not support an income tax. I will not raise taxes,” she said. “Let’s get on with the solution, and the solution is to grow the economy.”
In an hourlong debate with Republican challenger Dino Rossi, Gregoire said she has the experience to lead the state through tough times. Rossi countered by pointing to the state budget, which has increased more than 30 percent in four years.
“Just look in the mirror” for the state budget problem, he told Gregoire. Increasing spending more than revenue “is fiscally irresponsible at best,” Rossi said.
Gregoire also said Thursday that the state will not be funding a paid family leave program for new parents, at least for now.
Thursday’s debate, held in a resort north of Bellingham, was the second of five scheduled so far. The race is a rematch of 2004’s famously close election, which Gregoire won by 133 votes after two recounts and a court battle. Rossi has been hammering the governor for months over state spending and bureaucracy; Gregoire and fellow Democrats have focused on painting Rossi as a George Bush clone and far-right social conservative.
But as in the other Washington, much of the debate Thursday night focused on the economy.
“No place in America has been able to miss what has happened in the catastrophic national economy that we are facing,” Gregoire said. But she noted that she faced a $2.2 billion budget shortfall when she took office in 2005.
“With those troubled times, I’m tough enough to make the tough decisions,” she said.
On her watch, she said, the state has invested in education and health care while still saving hundreds of millions of dollars for hard times.
Rossi vowed to improve the business climate and clear the path for the next wave of entrepreneurs. A former head of the state Senate’s budget committee, he said he’d rein in state spending and still protect the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
“This is about changing the culture and direction of state government for a generation,” he said.
He also faced a budget shortfall in 2003, he said.
“If I hadn’t done it before, I’d be terrified,” he said. “But I’ve done it before and I can do it again.”
He said he’d start by cutting back on the governor’s staff “entourage.”
The debate touched on several other topics. Among them:
Climate change: Gregoire said the state has a moral responsibility to be a leader on the issue, and should boost mass transit to reduce auto emissions. Rossi said he’d rather see incentives, such as tax breaks for electric and hybrid cars.
Minimum wage: Rossi suggested he was willing to consider lowering the state’s minimum wage, the highest in the nation. He said he’d consider the idea of a “training wage” for new employees.
“It’s not meant to be a family wage. It’s meant to be an entry-level wage,” he said of the minimum.
Gregoire didn’t like the idea. “I don’t know of anyone getting rich on the minimum wage,” she said, adding that many minimum-wage workers are supporting families.
As if to underscore the financial unease, the debate came only hours after the announcement that Washington Mutual, the Seattle-based lender, is selling its banking operations after a desperate search for a buyer.
“My hope is that JPMorgan Chase and Co. will consider WaMu’s employees, customers and its importance to the economic and social fabric of our state,” Gregoire said earlier Thursday.
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