OLYMPIA — Washington voters have a long history of sending a Democrat to the governor’s office.
This year, they’ll decide whether to continue that trend — unbroken since 1984 — when they cast their vote between Democratic incumbent Gov. Jay Inslee and his Republican challenger, former Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant.
Whoever prevails faces a challenging upcoming legislative session, and will have to work with lawmakers as they scramble to comply with a court deadline to properly fund the state’s basic education system.
Among the many things the candidates disagree over include how best to address the long-hanging shadow of a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that found the state was not meeting its constitutional obligations on K-12 education.
Inslee called it a multistep process, noting that the state has already allocated more than $2 billion since that ruling, and he compared the state’s progress to climbing Mount Everest. State officials have estimated that the costs related to that court mandate are at least another $3 billion.
“We have to get from Camp 4 to the summit,” he said of lawmakers’ responsibility next year. “It’s the last step.”
As in previous years, Inslee says that closing some existing tax exemptions should be part one of the options lawmakers consider.
Bryant disagrees, saying that while the state will need to spend more on education, “that does not mean we need more taxes.”
“It’s a function of dedicating revenue growth,” he said. “We need to look at how we’re spending the money.”
In August’s “top two” primary, Inslee garnered 49 percent of the vote, compared with Bryant’s 38 percent, similar to recent polling in the race.
Inslee is also significantly ahead in fundraising, having raised more than $8.5 million compared with Bryant, who has raised about $3 million.
Todd Donovan, professor of political science at Western Washington University, said that Bryant has the added challenge of fighting low name recognition in a year when the presidential election is taking up most of voters’ attention.
“You’ve got to break through that noise,” Donovan said. “He has to convince the voters why they should fire the incumbent.”
Bryant said that he thinks the voters who turn out in November ultimately will break his way because of issues such as increased traffic jams, the erroneous early release of prisoners and problems with the state’s mental health system and safety concerns at Western State psychiatric hospital that Bryant pins firmly on Inslee.
“There’s no real trust the Inslee administration is on top of it,” Bryant said.
“It’s not about Republicans or Democrats; it’s about competence.”
Bryant said that in addition to education, he would make traffic reduction a top priority of his administration.
“I’m not talking about adding new freeways,” he said. “Let’s sit down with the engineers. What can we do to allow traffic to move more clearly?”
Inslee said that an issue as complex as transportation requires consensus, which doesn’t always come quickly. But he points to a $16 billion bipartisan transportation package that the Legislature passed last year as an example of progress.
“You cannot solve transportation with pixie dust or a magic wand,” he said.
Another area of disagreement is on a statewide minimum wage.
Inslee supports a ballot measure that would raise the statewide minimum wage to $13.50 over four years. Bryant said he supports the idea of regional increases based on the cost of living.
Ballots will start being sent to Washington voters Wednesday, Oct. 19. The general election is Nov. 8.