Job creation may be the main talking point of the two main candidates for governor, but another topic is rivaling employment as a top issue in the campaign.
That’s thanks in part to outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire, who has loudly backed the creation of new taxes to support the state’s constitutional requirement to provide quality basic education.
The state Supreme Court ruled early this year that the state hasn’t met its obligation to adequately fund education programs.
But both Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee – Gregoire’s pick to succeed her – disagree with her assertion that more taxes are necessary.
Gregoire spoke strongly last week to the Washington Education Association for the need for “new revenue” to raise an extra $1 billion in the next two-year budget. The teachers union held its annual convention at the Spokane Convention Center.
The next day, however, Inslee addressed the WEA convention and largely avoided the topic of how to address the Supreme Court ruling.
In an interview before the speech, Inslee said he would focus efforts to improve education funding on improving the economy, which would increase tax revenue.
“The most fundamental thing we need to do is get people back to work in this state,” he said. “That’s the real driver of revenue creation in our state.”
Inslee said he also would find savings by instituting efficiency programs that have grown popular in corporate America as well as in some cities like Spokane under former Mayor Mary Verner.
McKenna said growing the economy is important, but said Democratic administrations have allowed the percentage of the state budget devoted to education to shrink as other programs have grown. He said he would reverse that trend.
“Moving forward we have to focus on reform and on spending more of the state budget on education,” McKenna said in an interview last week. “That means we’re not going to spend as much on other parts of the budget – that we won’t allow other parts of the budget to grow as fast as they have been growing.”
McKenna said many departments in state government haven’t shrunk enough during the economic downturn and aren’t running efficiently. He said he would introduce competitive bidding for some government functions, such as information technology services, in a way that would allow government and the private sector to compete for government contracts. Budget savings should be directed in large part at fulfilling the constitutional education mandate, he said.
“We need to look at general government and make it less expensive,” McKenna said.
Inslee suggested that another solution to boost education funding is to close “tax loopholes.”
But Gregoire told the WEA that the the push to close tax loopholes has largely failed and questioned the political likelihood of removing loopholes given that doing so requires the same two-thirds vote from the Legislature that raising taxes does.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to raise revenue?” she told the WEA convention. “It is just shy of absolutely impossible.”
Inslee said he doesn’t support the requirement for a two-thirds vote to close tax loopholes.
“The working middle-class people of the state of Washington should have the right not to allow corporate tax loopholes to exist if they don’t produce economic activity and if they wound the public schools,” Inslee said.
Inslee has the strong support of the WEA, but McKenna last week won the endorsement of Stand for Children Washington, a group that backed Gregoire four years ago.
Inslee drew the most cheers in his speech last week when he defended collective bargaining rights of teachers.
“As governor, I will not allow a Wisconsin-style attack on teachers to happen in the state of Washington,” he said. “Instead of pointing their fingers at the Wall Street bankers who were responsible for the collapse of our economy, (Wisconsin leaders) pointed their fingers at the first-grade teachers.”
McKenna said he’s not opposed to collective bargaining.
“We’re not Wisconsin,” McKenna said. “We don’t need to change the laws regarding collective bargaining; we need more effective bargainers who put kids first.”
Inslee also stressed his opposition to charter schools, an issue that could gain prominence as a group works to collect signatures to place onto Washington’s November ballot an initiative allowing charter schools. The League of Education Voters filed the proposed charter school initiative on Tuesday with the Secretary of State’s Office.
“When I am governor, I am going to respect the people of Washington who have voted down non-accountable charter schools three times,” Inslee said. “I won’t turn schools over to private groups with no accountability to local school boards and local communities.”
McKenna notes that charter schools have the support of many prominent Democrats, including President Barack Obama.
“For children stuck in underperforming schools I want to provide the alternative of a high-performing public charter,” he said. “This is not the only thing we need to do, but it’s one of the tools we ought to have in our education reform toolbox.”
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