SEATTLE – Washington’s gubernatorial candidates agreed Tuesday night that increasing taxes isn’t something they would do as governor, and said during their final debate that more money needs to go to public schools and universities but sparred over a proposed tax plan to equalize the way Washington homeowners pay for public schools.
Both candidates expect the state to have growing revenues in the coming years. To free up extra cash for education, Republican Rob McKenna would like to cap non-education spending growth at 6 percent per biennium.
“I’m not willing to consider tax increases,” McKenna said. “Voters don’t want to see higher taxes.”
Democrat Jay Inslee said he believes his economic plan can trigger strong job growth to increase revenues, as well as efforts to contain health costs.
But Inslee called McKenna’s support of the so-called levy swap a tax “gimmick” that would raise taxes on people in many school districts.
The plan would replace some local property taxes with a statewide education property tax and essentially take tax money from property-rich taxpayers and distribute it to areas with schools in greater need.
Instead of the school districts with the highest property values being able to collect the most school levy dollars, taxpayers across the state would be contributing more to the overall state education system, and that money would be redistributed according to student population and needs, not by property values.
“It may help Olympia politicians on paper, it does not help students in school,” the former congressman said.
McKenna, the state’s attorney general, said that was not true and pointed out that the proposal was being advanced by Democrats in the Legislature.
“Hope is not a strategy, and hoping that a jobs plan will create more jobs to address this is not a strategy,” he said. “Congressman Inslee has no plan.”
Asked whether there were specific tax exemptions that he would close, Inslee cited a tax break for bull insemination that he said costs a million dollars a year.
“That’s not going to solve our educational problems, but it is an attitude that we need to start being rigorous to solve these education funding problems. I’m calling for these to have a sunset provision in which they come for a vote on a regular basis.”
McKenna agreed that while so-called tax loopholes should be regularly reviewed, he said he was more concerned about sales taxes that go uncollected by out-of-state online merchants every year. However, McKenna said closing exemptions alone wouldn’t solve the overall problem.
“You’re not going to close the budget gap for education by closing loopholes and preferences,” he said. “There’s just not enough money there.”
McKenna also criticized Inslee’s plan to create an Economic Competitiveness and Development office.
“The answer is clearly not to expand state government,” he said.
Inslee responded that the office would make government more efficient by moving aspects of economic development and trade policy work from the Department of Commerce to the new agency.
“We’re not increasing the size of government, we’re making it work,” he said.
The race between McKenna and Inslee is considered to be one of the most competitive races for governor in the country. Both sides have raised about $10 million, and outside groups have also flooded the state with cash. Recent polling has showed the candidates running about even.