In front of a packed house at Mercer Island’s Northwood Elementary, candidates for the 41st Legislative District answered questions about the most pressing topic in the state: education funding.
The voter forum, held Oct. 18, was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and PTA Council and moderated by journalist Hilary Benson.
Other topics, including ballot initiatives for a carbon tax (I-732) and extreme risk protection orders (I-1491), the Sound Transit 3 proposition, homelessness and mental health, highway tolling and traffic congestion, party loyalty and even whether or not Washington should have a tourism agency, were also discussed.
Michael Appleby (R-Bellevue), who is challenging incumbent Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) for House Position 2 in the 41st, and Sen. Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Island) said they did not support ST3 because of the $54 billion price tag and the preceding need to fully fund basic education statewide, per the 2012 McCleary decision.
Clibborn and Lisa Wellman (D-Mercer Island), who is running against Litzow, said they would support a capital gains tax to bring in the needed new revenue to satisfy McCleary. Benson noted the price tag is estimated at $3.5 billion to $10 billion.
Clibborn said she could use her experience as chair of the House Transportation Committee, which helped pass a $15 billion transportation package in 2015, to address education issues, while Appleby criticized recent transportation decisions. One of the cornerstone issues of his campaign is the elimination of tolls on Interstate 405.
Clibborn addressed concerns with another highway: Interstate 90. She said she has been working with the Mercer Island City Council, Sound Transit, the state secretary of transportation and the federal delegation on a “number of solutions that would make sure that we always will have access” to I-90 once the center lanes close for light rail construction, which may impact other on- and off-ramps to the freeway.
“The bottom line for me is that Island Crest will always be open,” she said.
Litzow said that new revenue has to be on the table, but that he would support a property tax increase over a capital gains or income tax. Wellman said she would also support a reform of the B&O tax, to make sure the aerospace and tech industries pay their fair share, but that the Legislature has “kicked the can down the road” on new revenue for too long.
Clibborn said that she has opposed the swiping of other funds, like the safety net and Public Works Assistance account, to pay for education, as the Legislature has done in recent years. Over $2 billion has been funneled to education, helping fund early learning programs and a college tuition decrease, but the last piece of the puzzle is to solve over-reliance on local levies, Litzow said. The Legislature has a bipartisan agreement to accomplish that during the 2017 session, despite differing viewpoints on how it should be done.
Wellman said that a capital gains tax should be “sufficient, sustainable and scalable.” A former teacher and technology executive, Wellman said her goal is to improve Washington schools from 22nd ranked in the nation to top five (you can read her ideas at www.wellmanplan.org).
Litzow, the chair of the Senate K-12 and Early Learning Committee, said the Legislature is close to a compromise.
“It’s a 40-year old problem [because] you’re touching taxes, which Republicans don’t like, and you’re touching collective bargaining, which Democrats don’t like,” Litzow said. “The goal here is to find a solution that quite frankly everybody hates … and the voters will be able to decide whether or not that’s what they want.”
Wellman, Appleby and Litzow expressed support for I-732, while Clibborn said she was “ambivalent,” as the initiative may have unintended consequences. All agreed that it would be revenue neutral, as promised, if implemented. Wellman and Litzow said they support I-1491 as a first step toward more gun responsibility.
To reduce homelessness, Wellman said she supported more low-income housing, transportation choices and mental health services, and raising the minimum wage. Litzow referenced his work in the Legislature to help the state’s 35,000 homeless kids in schools get access to resources.
On the state tourism agency question, Wellman noted that “we have a lot to talk about,” while Litzow countered that “the state doesn’t need to fund us talking about it,” favoring the idea that different organizations and attractions can do their own promotion.
Rep. Tana Senn (D-Mercer Island), the incumbent for House Position 1 in the 41st District, did not participate in the debate, per League of Women Voters rules, as her opponent John Pass (R-Bellevue) had a family emergency and could not attend.
During her opening and closing statements, Senn talked about her work on education, equal pay and gun safety issues.
At the end of the night, the candidates and the event sponsors said that if attendees had one takeaway from the event, it would be to remember to vote on Nov. 8, and to vote down the ballot.