VANCOUVER, Wash. – Standing nearly shoulder to shoulder, Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee lively debated jobs, education, the Columbia River Crossing and health care for an hour on KATU Television on Wednesday night in the race for Washington’s next governor.
The two gubernatorial candidates faced off literally inches from each other at the WSU-Vancouver campus in the first live debate of the general election. That proximity may have been a factor in boosting the intensity of the debate as KATU anchor Brian Wood fired questions at them. Many of the questions came from the station’s Facebook page and from readers of The Columbian, a news partner of KATU.
Both candidates said the issue of the Columbia River Crossing is of utmost importance to the residents of Southwest Washington, the state and even the country. But neither candidate was too specific about what needs to be done to get it built and replace the aging Interstate Bridge that connects Washington and Oregon.
But McKenna, the state’s current attorney general, asked why the federal government isn't stepping up to the plate with more funding.
“Right now it’s a third, a third, a third,” he said, referring to the planned financial responsibilities that will be shouldered by Washington, Oregon and the federal government. “So I think the state will have to come up with a plan. I’ve proposed putting one on the ballot that’s a package that includes money for this project, but we have to have the answers to the full funding package first.”
Inslee, a former U.S. representative, emphasized that the residents of Clark County should be fully involved in the discussion about building the bridge and that hard work is ahead to reach a consensus on how to finance the project. He also said that the bridge won’t be built until the community figures out how to include light rail as part of the bridge.
“This is a reality, and it is important for those who want to lead this state to say that, because if we are going to depend on these hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government, we are going to have to have leadership that will make sure that we get this light rail built. I will do that,” he said.
But McKenna said it's not clear whether commuters from the area want light rail. He said the C-Tran vote in November will "tell us a lot."
The candidates fought over how jobs should be created in the state. McKenna argued that Inslee’s plan would mean the state would be in the business of business.
“If you read the congressman’s jobs plan he says he wants to invite the private sector to join him in restructuring the state’s economy. … It’s not the state’s job to restructure the economy,” he said. “It’s the state’s job to reduce burdens of job creators to let them do what they do best, which is to act on their entrepreneurial instinct.”
He also said the government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners.
Inslee fired back by saying that his plan is not about government restructuring the economy at all or that it is the responsibility of government to pick winners.
“What we are proposing are common sense ideas that will help innovators to innovate,” he said. “We now know we need a governor to do some common sense things to get access to broadband, so that small businesses, if you’re in a rural area, you can sell your product around the world because you’ve got access to broadband.”
He also said he’d help small businesses get access to needed financing to help pay for a move to clean energy.
Education funding was also intensely debated. McKenna said politicians in the state’s capital have chosen to essentially defund education even while tax revenues increased.
“We are now under a court order, because the people running Olympia for the last 28 years could not bring themselves to take massive growth in the state budget that we’ve seen over the last 20 or 30 years and give enough of it to our public school children or to our higher education system,” he said.
The “court order” McKenna referred to is a Supreme Court decision that found the state wasn’t adequately funding education.
In contrast, Inslee suggested the problem of education funding is really because of high unemployment.
“The problem is we have 300,000 people out of work,” he said. “That’s why I’ve focused (like) a laser beam to get those people back to work. Then revenues will increase and that can be used for education.”
He also said that savings from health care reforms that focus on preventative care can be funneled toward education.
Neither proposed an increase in taxes to help boost education funding.
McKenna also expressed deep skepticism about the expansion of Medicaid that would occur under President Barack Obama's health care law. The federal government would cover 100 percent of the expansion during the first years, and 90 percent afterward.
McKenna noted that perhaps one-third of Washington residents could be eligible for Medicaid under the expansion. He said he would not "categorically reject" the expansion and left open the possibility for alternatives, arguing that there are other ways to get people covered.
"We're going to look at what we can afford," McKenna said after the debate.
Inslee said people with health insurance face a hidden tax that goes to cover the cost of uninsured people. He said it is a good fiscal decision for the state to accept the full expansion and argued that the health benefits of better coverage can have an economic benefit.
"The fiscal impact of this will be negative if we don't expand Medicaid," Inslee said after the debate.
Polls indicate the race is close, with perhaps a small lead for Inslee. McKenna may need some positive wind to his back because the state hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1980. The two have vigorously been campaigning since last summer when current Gov. Chris Gregoire announced she would not seek a third term.
KATU’s debate was held in partnership with the mayors and county commissioners in Southwest Washington, the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, The Columbia River Economic Development Council and its news partners at The Columbian newspaper.
Mike Baker of The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Video - Part 1
Video - Part 2
Video - Candidates ask each other questions
Video - Rapid-fire questions