Rob McKenna began his opening statement in Spanish. Jay Inslee talked of “bucking hay” and working to pass a levy to build a local high school.
And while Washington’s two gubernatorial candidates mostly continued long-running arguments over jobs, health care and school funding, Tuesday night’s debate in Yakima at least gave them a chance to air new disagreements over immigration and driver’s licenses.
Appearing before the Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, which are meeting in the Central Washington city, state Attorney General McKenna managed a long introductory comment in Spanish about how happy he was to be appearing before a group with which he’d previously worked.
Former U.S. Rep. Inslee stuck with a simple “Buenas noches” before mentioning he’d been a farmer, lawyer and legislator in the area.
Despite the new venue and some new topics, the candidates exhibited some of the same animus. Asked about solutions to the region’s farm labor shortage, Inslee said it would help to have a governor who understood the issue.
“We have to have leaders who won’t use immigration as a wedge issue. One of the parties uses immigration, and the fear of immigration, as a wedge issue,” said the Democratic nominee, who clearly meant the Republicans.
Immigration is primarily a federal issue, McKenna said. If Inslee was really interested in it, “he should’ve stayed in Congress … rather than quitting halfway through his term.”
Asked whether the state should change current law and only issue driver’s licenses to legal residents, McKenna said yes: “The idea that you can obtain a driver’s license … without proving you’re a legal resident of the country does not make sense.”
Inslee said it should only require that a person applying for a license “is who he says” and lives in Washington. “I don’t think we should make it impossible to drive.”
As usual, the candidates clashed over the possible expansion of Medicaid, which provides health care for low-income residents and could be expanded under the federal Affordable Care Act if the state chooses. It’s a good idea, said Inslee, because the cost of people without health insurance is really a “hidden tax” passed on to people who have insurance.
Treating the expansion like it’s “free money” and growing Medicaid to cover one in three state residents would be a mistake, countered McKenna. “Medicaid is a good safety net, but it is not insurance, it’s welfare,” he said, accusing Inslee of a “Washington, D.C., mentality.”
Both insisted that they would find more money for public schools without raising taxes, although Inslee said McKenna is already suggesting a state increase in the property tax. McKenna replied that’s really a tax “swap” – an accounting maneuver involving state and local property tax levels, suggested by legislators of both parties to comply with a state Supreme Court ruling. It’s Democrats like Inslee who have the record of raising taxes in recent years, McKenna countered.