Inslee, McKenna square off over taxes, immigration, health insurance

Inslee, McKenna square off over taxes, immigration, health insurance
FILE PHOTOS - Jay Inslee (left) and Rob McKenna (right)

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) - Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee sparred over taxes, immigration and health insurance Tuesday in the third debate of their tight race for governor.

Recent polls show Inslee has opened a slight lead in this Democratic-leaning state. Both candidates are seeking to replace Democrat Chris Gregoire, who did not seek a third term.

The debate at the Yakima Convention Center showed a sharp difference between the candidates over a federal plan to expand Medicaid in the state to cover more people without health insurance.

McKenna said he was opposed to the proposal, because the federal government will pay the costs only for the first three years.

"Medicaid is a basic safety net, not insurance," McKenna said.

He said the proposal would prompt thousands of people to drop private insurance and enroll in Medicaid.

But Inslee called it a "no-brainer" that he supported. Washington residents already pay the medical costs of uninsured people who show up at hospitals, he said.

"We all pay $1,000 a year because of uninsured folks," Inslee said.

McKenna, the state attorney general, made a portion of his opening remarks in Spanish, a nod to the large Hispanic population of the Yakima Valley. Inslee, meanwhile, talked of how he spent years as a lawyer in the Yakima area and launched his political career here, including his first term in Congress. He later moved to the Seattle area and won a congressional seat there.

Inslee said he opposed Initiative 1185, which is on the November ballot and calls for a two-thirds vote of the public to raise taxes. He said the law dilutes the concept of one person, one vote. The correct path, he said, is to grow the economy so the state does not need to raise taxes.

McKenna said Washington residents have supported similar bills four times in the past and clearly approve of the concept. He said he would seek to uphold the initiative if it passed.

On the issue of jobs, McKenna said it is too expensive for small businesses to hire people in Washington, and reform is needed on unemployment insurance, workers compensation and business regulation. Inslee pointed to his 75-point plan to spur an innovative economy.

Asked about a shortage of farm labor, a major issue in central Washington, Inslee said the immigration issue had been politicized by the Republican Party and comprehensive immigration reform is needed.

"One of the parties has decided to use immigration and fear of immigration as a wedge issue," Inslee said.

McKenna replied that if Inslee wanted to pursue immigration reform, he should have stayed in Congress.

"It's an irony to be chastised by a Republican on this subject," Inslee retorted.

McKenna said he opposes Washington's law that grants driver's licenses to people without requiring proof of legal residence. Both candidates said they support the concept of a temporary permit for driving that is not a state driver's license.

Given a chance to ask McKenna a question, Inslee asked which state environmental laws should be lowered to be the same as federal standards.

"I don't believe we should reduce our standards," Inslee said.

But McKenna said a mish-mash of local, state and federal environmental laws made no sense.

"We should be looking for harmony in standards," McKenna said, and the state should not automatically pursue standards that are tougher than the federal government's.

On the issue of gang violence in the Yakima Valley, Inslee said a solution would include more resources for law enforcement, a system to help move kids out of gangs and back into schools, and removal of "nuisance locations" where gangs congregate.

McKenna said one barrier was convincing the Legislature about the scope of the problem. He proposed going after the leaders of gangs.

McKenna said a ballot initiative that would legalize recreational use of marijuana should be defeated because it will still be a federal crime to use marijuana. The issue is a federal one, he said.

Inslee also did not support the initiative but said he supported the medical use of marijuana.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.