Inslee-Bryant debate presents clear differences

First televised debate for the two

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and Republican challenger Bill Bryant sketched starkly different pictures on Monday night of how Washington has fared over the past four years.

During an hourlong televised debate at Seattle University, Bryant portrayed Inslee as a bungling, checked-out leader, tagging him as responsible for security lapses and patient deaths at a state psychiatric hospital, the early release of prison inmates, growing traffic congestion and homelessness.

“You don’t build a community on incompetence and broken promises,” Bryant said.

Inslee countered with a sunnier view, pointing to lower unemployment, billions of new dollars poured into public schools and passage of a statewide transportation package. He argued Bryant and his Republican allies would only roll back progress on issues from climate change to raising the minimum wage.

“We are a confident and an optimistic state and I am a confident and an optimistic governor — and there is good reason for that,” Inslee said, accusing Bryant of “a negative, can’t do” agenda.

Taking the stage shortly after the televised presidential debate, the rivals clashed early on over the state’s failure to satisfy the Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary ruling that found the state has failed to adequately fund public schools. The state remains under a $100,000-a-day contempt citation in that case.

Bryant criticized Inslee for still not having a plan to solve the long-running problem by a 2018 deadline. Instead, the governor and state lawmakers this year essentially created a panel and pledged to come up with a plan next year.

“He has no plan,” Bryant said.

Inslee pointed to more than $5 billion in additional spending that has gone toward schools, including a large new investment in preschools and kindergarten. “That’s not a plan, that’s progress,” he said.

Despite his criticisms of Inslee, Bryant also has not presented a detailed McCleary plan, but said during the debate he wanted to see the state spend 50 to 51 percent of the state budget on public schools. In a post-debate interview, Bryant said he has been working with educators and others on a proposal that would level out levy disparities between rich and poor districts.

On taxes, both Inslee and Bryant said they oppose a state income tax, which the state Democratic Party favors in its platform.

“I am against a state income tax. I do not believe it is right for the state of Washington,” Inslee said.

Bryant suggested Inslee can’t be trusted on taxes, pointing to the Democrat’s 2012 vow to veto new taxes. After taking office, Inslee proposed more than $1 billion in new taxes including a capital-gains tax targeting the wealthiest Washingtonians.

Inslee accused Bryant of refusing to consider closing corporate tax exemptions, such as one that benefits the oil industry, arguing that would make it harder to find the money needed to fund schools, mental-health improvements and other priorities the Republican says are important.

Bryant and Inslee disagreed on Initiative 1433, which would raise the state’s current $9.47-an-hour minimum wage to $13.50 by 2020 and guarantee paid sick leave for workers. Bryant argued against a “one size fits all” approach, saying it could cost low jobs in some parts of the state.

“I think that is playing poker blindfolded with other people’s jobs,” he said.

Inslee, who supports I-1433, argued Bryant’s opposition shows his concern about homeless families and poverty to be nothing but “crocodile tears.”

“You can’t trust him on this,” Inslee said. “He wants to stop sick leave, for goodness sakes.”

The two candidates also diverged on Sound Transit’s proposed $54 billion ballot measure this fall, with Inslee supportive and Bryant saying the plan would fail to reduce traffic and was too costly.

Bryant, a former Port of Seattle commissioner, is pushing to overcome more than three decades of Democratic control of the governor’s office. The last Republican to be elected governor was John Spellman in 1980.

By all conventional measures, Inslee looks well-positioned to extend the Democratic winning streak to nine elections. He has led in polls and his campaign has raised $8.4 million to Bryant’s $2.6 million.

After 15 years in Congress, Inslee was elected governor four years ago, defeating then-Attorney General Rob McKenna.

The debate was organized by the Washington State Debate Coalition, a new statewide organization founded with the support of Seattle City Club and a bipartisan group of civic leaders, news media, colleges and universities.

Inslee and Bryant are scheduled to meet again in another coalition-sponsored debate Oct. 19 at Columbia Basin College in Pasco.