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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

McKenna, Inslee spar over state issues

Coal trains, taxes, light rail major points of contention

Washington gubernatorial candidates Rob McKenna, left, and Jay Inslee shake hands at a debate Wednesday. (Associated Press)

VANCOUVER – Washington voters unhappy with their state government won’t see much change unless they stop a 28-year string of Democrats in the governor’s office, the Republican attorney general contended in a debate here Wednesday night.

“I’m not the one who’s been in Olympia for the last seven years,” the Democratic former U.S. representative countered.

In their first debate since the primary, Rob McKenna and Jay Inslee clashed over coal trains, the need for a supermajority on tax increases and the need for light rail on a new bridge over the Columbia River. They agreed the state didn’t need to raise taxes to get better schools and colleges, although McKenna tried to cast doubt on Inslee’s sincerity about taxes.

“I do not support raising taxes,” Inslee insisted.

Govs. Mike Lowry and Chris Gregoire said during campaigns that they weren’t proposing tax increases but changed their tune when they got in office, McKenna countered. He offered a more emphatic no-tax pledge: “I am not proposing, and I will not propose a tax increase.”

McKenna tried repeatedly to tie Inslee to a range of state government shortcomings for nearly three decades – from higher tuition in colleges and court orders to spend more on public schools to taxes approved by the Legislature but rejected by voters. Those came during administrations of Inslee’s fellow Democrats, who have held the office since 1985, and electing another Democrat would give Washington more of the same, he said.

But McKenna’s been in state office more than seven years as attorney general, and a more important element of change would be an outsider who’s not entrenched in Olympia, Inslee countered. “I’m not beholden to people. I can bring in new blood.”

McKenna was more supportive of plans to build ports along the Washington coast that would receive coal shipments from cross-country trains to send overseas. The facilities would be subject to rigorous environmental standards, he added: “The state does not get to stop coal shipments. That’s governed by federal law.”

And if the ports and jobs don’t come to Washington, they’ll likely go to Canada, he said.

But Inslee said the ports have pluses and minuses: pluses for the jobs to build and operate the ports, but minuses for the communities that will be bisected by long trains many times a day.

“We need to have a cumulative assessment up and down the line,” Inslee said. Locating the ports in Canada is not a “slam dunk” if they aren’t here, he added, because costs are higher there.

McKenna challenged Inslee on his opposition to voter-approved measures that require supermajorities to raise taxes in the Legislature. Another such measure will be on the ballot this November, and it’s likely to pass just like four others have, the attorney general said.

It’s anti-democratic, replied Inslee: It gives people who vote no more power than people who vote yes, and in democracy all votes should be equal.

Both said they support a new bridge over the Columbia River, saying it was important for the state, regional and national economy. But they disagreed on whether the bridge should include light rail.

Light rail is a priority for Oregon residents but not necessarily for Washington residents, McKenna said. It’s needed for federal funding for the bridge, Inslee said.

The two candidates repeated their strategies for adding jobs in Washington. Inslee wants to focus “like a laser” on key industries like aerospace, software and biotechnology. McKenna wants to offer tax relief, fewer regulations and lower rates for unemployment and workers’ compensation.

“They don’t need government picking winners and losers,” he said.

But some of McKenna’s ideas on workers’ comp have been tried and rejected, Inslee said. “We are not picking winners, except for Washington.”