McKenna, Inslee spar in first debate in governor's campaign

Candidates largely tow party lines over economy, education, rules

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SPOKANE — Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee offered predictable partisan answers but displayed little fire on Tuesday in the first debate of the 2012 race for governor in Washington, a desultory affair in which neither candidate come out a clear winner.

McKenna, the state attorney general, spent much of the debate complaining that Inslee was not answering the questions. Inslee, a former congressman from the Seattle area, often avoided offering specific proposals.

"The congressman has never met a regulation he couldn't like or which couldn't be stricter," McKenna said at one point.

"The Romney-McKenna view of life is that the reason we have (the housing crisis) is because of homeowners and not Wall Street," Inslee said, tying his opponent to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Without a dominant issue dividing the campaigns, the candidates mostly broke down along ideological lines. They did agree on the need to spend more money on higher education.

Inslee highlighted his calls for getting more Washingtonians into the workplace in his opening statements, saying government assistance would help Washington companies innovate and grow the economy out of recession.

"We need a better partnership between government and the economy," Inslee said.

McKenna countered that Democrats have held the governor's mansion since 1984 and are largely responsible for many of the state's woes. He said Democrats are "out of ideas."

"They just keep insisting we need higher taxes," McKenna said.

The debate was in the Bing Crosby Theater in downtown Spokane before a packed pro-business audience that skewed toward the GOP.

An early flash point was over the new federal health care law, the constitutionality of which the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on this month. McKenna, who joined other GOP attorneys general across the country in opposition to the law President Barack Obama signed, said the legislation was partisan and flawed. He said if it's struck down states could pursue other options, such as allowing insurance companies to sell across state lines to increase competition.

Inslee, who as a congressman supported the legislation, said key reforms such as allowing older children to stay on their parents' plans and providing coverage to people with pre-existing conditions would be lost if the law is tossed out.

"If you are a breast cancer survivor, you ought to be able to get health care in our state," Inslee said.

Both men said they would not raise taxes to increase the money spent on education -- something Gov. Chris Gregoire has said is needed.

"I propose job creation to increase revenues to fund education," Inslee said.

McKenna said he did not want to put more money into an "unreformed system" with business as usual. He called for a system of public charter schools, noting Washington is one of only nine states without them.

"This is a tool we ought to have," McKenna said.

The debate was sponsored by the Association of Washington Business. Recent polling shows that McKenna and Inslee are locked in a close race. They are seeking to replace Gregoire, a Democrat who is not seeking a third term.

Both candidates said the state needed to spend more on higher education to reduce tuition costs to students. McKenna noted that higher education dropped from 16 percent of the state budget in the 1990s to 8 percent now.

McKenna blamed Democrats at the state capital for many of the cuts.

"The folks running Olympia for the last 28 years decimated higher education funding," McKenna said.

Inslee highlighted his support of various tax breaks to help certain small businesses grow. McKenna said tax breaks, if used, should be more evenly distributed through the economy.

"How many of you favor a plan that gives your competitors or an entire industry an advantage?" McKenna asked the audience.

McKenna said environmental protections should be "harmonized" between the state and federal governments, so that the state does not have higher standards in some cases. But Inslee said in Washington that would weaken current protections for clean air and protected shorelines.

The candidates agreed that proposed coal export ports in the state should face proper environmental review.

Each candidate was allowed to ask one question of his opponent.

Inslee used his question to ask McKenna about being replaced by members of his own party as a budget writer for the King County Council when he did not produce a balanced budget. McKenna asked Inslee if he would vote again for bills in Congress that helped produce the housing crisis. Both candidates had ready explanations.

In terms of raising billions of dollars for transportation needs, McKenna said he would have a measure to put before voters by 2014 at the latest. Inslee said he would wait until "we regain the trust of Washingtonians" before seeking to put the issue before voters.

The candidates disagreed over a requirement of a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. McKenna is fighting in court to save such a requirement in the state.

"The people who run Olympia are too ready to raise taxes too often," McKenna said.

Inslee believes two-thirds requirements violate the principle of one man, one vote by giving too much power to tax opponents.