Jay Inslee the superior candidate for South Sound interests

South Sound voters face a difficult choice in this year’s gubernatorial contest. Both candidates – Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, and former U.S. Congressman Jay Inslee, a Democrat – offer years of experience and unique qualifications that will appeal to segments of a county that votes decidedly Democratic.

Thurston County voters gave Gov. Chris Gregoire a 9 percent margin of victory over Republican Dino Rossi in 2004 and increased her lead in the county to more than 15 percent in 2008.

Democrats have controlled the governor’s office for 28 years, and created a whole generation of state workers who have never worked for a Republican. That works against McKenna in a region dominated by state employees.

McKenna’s promise to bring radical change and reform to state government, while appealing to some, creates an employment uncertainty that won’t charm the majority of rank-and-file government workers or top agency managers casting South Sound ballots.

Inslee is more than the safe choice for Thurston County, he’s a better match with voters on a number of key issues: clean energy, health care and an approach to taxes.

Inslee championed the state’s Energy Independence Act requiring the larger utilities to generate 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020, and was a key congressional player in promoting sustainable biofuels for commercial aviation and the Department of Defense.

He co-founded the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition.

The candidates differ sharply on national health care reform and Medicaid expansion. Inslee helped shape Obamacare and voted for it, while McKenna jumped quickly to join a lawsuit by Republican attorneys general to have it struck down, in whole or in part.

Inslee also supports the expansion of Medicaid to more adults, because the state would have little expense through 2020 and zero expense the first year. He argues convincingly that families are already paying a “hidden tax” of $1,000 per year to cover the uncompensated treatment of people without insurance in hospital emergency rooms.

McKenna says Medicaid is not the way to provide insurance to more people. He would use the insurance exchange provision of Obamacare to move people toward purchasing private insurance.

Neither candidate has a practical solution for resolving the state Supreme Court ruling that the Legislature has not fully funded K-12 basic public education as required by the Washington Constitution.

Both candidates say improved economic growth over time will generate sufficient tax revenue to the state to meet the requirement.

But McKenna would cap non-education spending growth and cut non-education expenses, directing savings and new revenue growth to education first. That means deep cuts to other programs.

It is troubling that Inslee opposes replacing school levies with an increase in property taxes. It’s an idea with strong bipartisan support.

Although his plans to tackle the state’s most pressing issues have been vague in comparison to his opponent’s, Inslee has promised to move forward without creating new taxes. After last week’s debate, Inslee told reporters, “I would veto anything that heads the wrong direction and the wrong direction is new taxes in the state of Washington.”

Inslee would also bring several little-noticed attributes to the governor’s office.

First, the Democrat has a better chance of closing some of the ideological divides in this state, albeit they pale in comparison to the chasms that exist in states like Wisconsin.

Contrary to the popular belief that Washington politics split between the eastern and west coast regions of the state, the real political divide exists between urban and rural communities. Inslee grew up in Yakima and served a congressional district with both constituencies.

Second, Inslee will have a wide selection of experienced people to draw from to fill top agency jobs and to advise him. Republicans don’t have comparable bench strength after sitting on the state government sidelines for a whole generation.

It is clear that the state needs a new perspective on confronting meaningful government reforms, particularly state employee pay and health care issues. Both are touting Lean management techniques to find efficiencies and savings.

But Inslee’s approach of reducing total health care costs through incentives for healthful living and managed care for chronic illnesses is more likely to win cooperation from state unions.

Washington is fortunate to have two bright candidates to succeed Gregorie. Inslee is the better choice for Thurston County.