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News / Northwest

Inslee dismisses talk of trouble in his first term

The Columbian
Published: August 10, 2015, 5:00pm

Stung by assertions from some quarters that Republicans “won” the 2015 legislative session, Gov. Jay Inslee dismissed Monday any notion his administration is on the ropes, saying he “wrestled Republicans to the ground.”

But it was a year that required him to call extra sessions lasting late into June and saw the defeat of his two most ambitious proposals since becoming governor: a cap-and-trade system to lower carbon emissions and a capital gains tax.

Inslee said those high-profile defeats – as well as a recent Elway poll that found just 30 percent of voters saying they would “definitely” vote for him in 2016 – contributed to the perception that his administration was foundering.

“It’s not surprising that people are cranky after a six-month legislative session,” Inslee said in an interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board Monday. “I can understand why people are not thrilled about the state of affairs in that regard.”

But he said “90 percent” of the Democratic agenda was reached in the new budget, including cutting K-3 school class sizes, a gas tax increase to fund transportation and closing millions in tax loopholes.

“The issue is Washington, not either party, but I’m happy to say the vast majority of things I fought for, I won,” Inslee said.

But Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said the victories Inslee points to were either issues that already enjoyed a broad consensus, such as more money for education and mental health, or were led by Senate Republicans.

“Any area we agree on (Inslee) will claim is his idea,” Schoesler said in a telephone interview.

The Legislature began with Inslee pushing for a 12-year, $12 billion transportation package and ended with an even bigger deal: a 16-year plan with $16 billion in spending boosted by an 11.7-cent gas tax increase.

“Looking at this as a wrestling match isn’t the right way, and if you do, we wrestled Republicans to the ground on about $16 billion in revenue and about 125 issues that we won in the budget,” Inslee said.

Outside of Republicans cutting tuition at state universities, Inslee said Democrats “wrote the rest of the budget.”

Although Democrats didn’t propose tuition cuts initially, it was their idea to include community colleges in the statewide tuition cut.

Schoesler said Inslee can only take credit for a number of proposals because he released his budget first, a standard practice for governors ahead of a legislative session.

“He just happened to publish the first budget,” Schoesler said.

Schoesler also said the transportation package included reforms aimed at cutting costs and red tape involving state transportation programs that Inslee never asked for.

“None of the reforms were Jay Inslee’s ideas,” he said.

The Legislature also approved $2.3 billion in new education spending that Inslee says was one of his priorities, as well as class size reductions for kindergarten through third grade. Pay raises for state employees, the first since 2008, and cost-of-living adjustments for teachers were also passed with bipartisan support in the Senate.

Inslee said his first term will be viewed as successful, even if he has to take unilateral action on his top issues, such climate change, on which he is staking a national reputation.

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In late July, after failing to get legislative support for a carbon cap-and-trade program, Inslee directed the Department of Ecology to draft policy on a program. Inslee said that plan could be rolled out in the next nine to 12 months, which will likely make it a big campaign issue if he runs for re-election.

Inslee repeated his harsh assessments of Republicans’ record on climate change, saying the caucus was dominated by “climate deniers” who “think carbon is fine.” He said they and oil industry interests will continue to stoke fear of the governor’s climate agenda.

“Fear works best in a vacuum of information,” Inslee said. “Facts are the best antidote, and we have a lot of that.”

But Schoesler said Republicans will look out for state residents who might pay higher costs for services under stricter carbon fuel standards.

Inslee does not accept responsibility for an overtime Legislature. He accused Republicans of “running down the clock” and putting the government on the verge of a shutdown in late June when a budget needed to be in place by July 1, hinting it might have even been a strategy to hurt his poll numbers.

But Schoesler said the budget languished because Democrats wouldn’t abandon their tax proposals long after it was clear they wouldn’t fly as state revenue projections increased.

“There was a lot of false hope we were going to pass tax increases well into June, which just wasn’t going to happen,” Schoesler said.

The Legislature also closed tax loopholes amounting to more than $220 million over the next two years. Inslee had championed closing $280 million in loopholes, but still considered the legislation a victory.

The Legislature approved $14 million in drought relief this past session, although local Republican lawmakers said early on they faced pushback from Democrats who didn’t consider Eastern Washington water issues to be a statewide problem.

Inslee acknowledged the push-and-pull between lawmakers representing opposite sides of the state, but didn’t specifically recall disagreements over drought relief. He said at times, he has lifted the so-called “Cascade Curtain” because he represented the Yakima Valley in the Legislature and Congress in the 1980s and ’90s. He said he has helped win over Democrats to support the Yakima River Basin Enhancement Project.

With the end of his first term in sight, Inslee wouldn’t identify his major accomplishments or disappointments. He said economic growth has been strong over the last 21/2 years and he has stood tall for Democratic priorities in spite of a divided Legislature.

One well-financed Republican challenger is ready to take on Inslee in 2016 – Seattle Port Commissioner Bill Bryant. Another potential candidate is Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, who hasn’t announced a decision.

Inslee said he’s confident public opinion will turn in his favor by November 2016.

“I hope that my biggest accomplishments are to come,” Inslee said.