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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bryant, Inslee clash on economy and schools in Spokane debate

Washington Governor Jay Inslee, left, shakes hands with challenger Bill Bryant before the two debate at Spokane Falls Community College Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. Sean Owsley, right, of KHQ-TV moderated the debate. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Gov. Jay Inslee and his Republican opponent, Bill Bryant, disagreed on education, the economy and raising the minimum wage Wednesday. They argued over Inslee’s recent decision to allow the Spokane Tribe to build a new casino on the West Plains, and on Bryant’s slow decision to say he wasn’t supporting GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

At one point in their first debate, when Bryant suggested they actually agree on getting tougher on oil trains crossing Washington state, Inslee insisted they did not.

They even clashed over who has the better small-town roots to understand the challenges in parts of Washington left behind by the economic boom in the Puget Sound.

Bryant said it was him because he was born in Morton, Washington, grew up along the Hood Canal and started a business in Yakima. Inslee said he had the better grasp because he raised his children in Selah, Washington, and “you don’t get much smaller than that.”

From the outset of the debate at Spokane Falls Community College, which was sponsored by the Association of Washington Business and Avista, Bryant hammered on the state’s uneven economic recovery. What he called the Bainbridge-to-Bellevue corridor may be booming, Bryant said, but some counties in Eastern Washington have double-digit unemployment.

“There are a lot of people being left behind,” he said.

Inslee countered that his administration has developed new programs to recruit new businesses by tailoring training for their future employees, and he mentioned startups in Wenatchee and Spokane. The state has added 250,000 jobs in the last four years, and unemployment is down throughout the state, he said.

Inslee said he supports a ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage to $13.50 by 2020, giving workers more money to spend and helping parts of the economy that depend on consumer spending.

Bryant argued that would drive some small businesses that exist on thin margins out of business. He said the state should instead have different minimum wages for different regions. “This is a very diverse state with very different costs of living,” he said.

Inslee shot back: “If you’re going to have a state minimum wage, Bill, it’s got to be statewide.”

Bryant noted the state’s ongoing struggle to meet a Washington Supreme Court order to adequately fund public schools. Inslee’s had four years and still hasn’t completed the job, he said, but if elected Bryant would bring together members of both parties, parents and educators to develop a plan and sell it to the Legislature.

Inslee countered that the state has added $2.3 billion to public schools and some $5.5 billion overall, from early education to public colleges. Although Bryant had said he could meet the court requirements for better schools without raising taxes, Inslee said that would require cutting other key state programs addressing mental health or homelessness.

When Bryant said they actually agree that the state needs tougher laws to require railroad companies to ship crude oil in modern cars over adequately maintained rail lines, Inslee disagreed. Bryant had called for a moratorium on regulations in his opening speech, but now he was proposing new regulations.

“If the Legislature wants to pass a law, that’s not the same as a moratorium,” Bryant countered, adding that a moratorium would only be temporary.

Inslee defended his decision to give the final approval to the proposed casino project by the Spokane Tribe, saying it would boost the economy and provide jobs. Bryant argued that it was putting nearby Fairchild Air Force Base, the county’s largest employer, and its jobs at risk.

Inslee countered that he’d talked with high-ranking officials in the Pentagon before making the decision and was assured it did not jeopardize the base’s future. What they told him “is a lot different than what Bill Bryant told me,” he said.

Asked by Bryant to name his biggest mistake as governor, Inslee quipped his biggest mistake was probably accepting a campaign contribution from Bryant in 1994. “Everybody makes a mistake now and then,” Bryant shot back.

Inslee asked Bryant why he remained silent for months as Donald Trump mocked a disabled reporter, made derogatory comments about different races and religions, and insulted the Muslim family of a soldier killed in Iraq. “You wouldn’t say a peep,” he said.

Bryant accused Inslee of talking about Trump to avoid talking about his record, but said announcing earlier this week he wouldn’t vote for the GOP nominee was a tough decision because he knows people in small towns who feel left behind by their government and think Trump will help them.