Gov. Jay Inslee has been a fixture in state politics for three decades. Now that his second term as governor nears its end and his run for the Democratic presidential nomination has bombed, he should retire with grace. Next year, voters need to elect a governor whose political aspirations and interests are firmly focused on promoting the best interests of all Washingtonians, not one wistfully remembering the White House that could have been.
Washington has real problems that need real solutions and leadership. Inslee, however, was a single-issue candidate during his run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Climate change became his raison d’être.
But he and that signature issue didn’t fire up the Democratic base. He might have suspected as much given that he had failed to sell Washingtonians on a carbon tax. We’re not sure what made him think that after struggling to gain traction on the issue in this blue state he would fare better nationally.
So the 68-year-old called it quits and declared that he will run for a third term as governor. Watching a senior statesman cling to power rather than let new leaders rise with fresh ideas is dispiriting. The last thing Washington needs is four more years of a governor banging his head against the climate wall.
The state has crucial challenges. Some have lingered for years. Others are just emerging. All require new approaches.
Health care, homelessness and the nexus between them must be top priorities for the next governor. Washington needs to find more money for housing, for treating substance use disorders, and for better incorporation of mental, behavioral and physical health into the justice system. If the state wants to bring health care spending under control, it must address homelessness. According to a 2017 review by the federal Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, being homeless triples the likelihood that a person will go to a hospital ER at least once a year.
Washington also needs a fresh perspective and renewed attention to education. Inslee led the charge to deliver pay hikes that the teachers union wanted but didn’t attach any strings. There was no accountability nor requirements that best practices be implemented systematically. Rather, the governor and his supporters in the Legislature simply threw money at schools, satisfying union supporters without improving education outcomes. Meanwhile, they target charter schools, some of which are producing astounding advances for students, for defunding and elimination.
Spokane residents know that for a champion of climate change, Inslee has a mixed record on the environment. He supported, and now opposes, a measurable standard for PCBs in the Spokane River. Now potential litigation threatens to impose huge expense on taxpayers and dischargers, with no beneficial impact on fish and human health. Full disclosure: Inland Empire Paper Company, a sister company to The Spokesman-Review, discharges a trace level of PCBs. Meanwhile, whether it’s a pipe dream to remove dams on the Snake River or deferring to bureaucrats who cancel wolf outreach meetings, the governor has failed to lead. Washington can do better.
Economically, the state has done well during Inslee’s tenure, but then the nation’s economy has done well, too. Looking forward, Inslee’s willingness to cater to the worst instincts of the Democratic base has created problems that will drag the economy down. A $13.50 per hour minimum wage (coming in 2020), an astoundingly high hourly pay threshold, might be reasonable for Seattle, but is an overwhelming burden in the rest of the state, where the cost of living and number of tech millionaires is 20-40% lower. The next governor needs to focus on economic growth outside the I-5 corridor.
Finally, Inslee has done little to improve the political environment in the state. Divisive partisanship still rules, and the majority Democrats show little interest in working across diverse issues, instead using legislative gimmicks to ram through tax surprises. The only time lawmakers seem to agree is around bad ideas like exempting themselves from the Public Records Act.
Washington voters deserve a chance next year to select from among fresh faces who will lead the state into a new decade. Up-and-coming Democrats, Republicans and independents could have an exciting debate about the future before the election. With Inslee, the campaign becomes just a referendum on a governor who wants to overstay his time.
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