On a sweltering Thursday evening at First United Methodist Church in Bellevue, candidates for the 41st Legislative District covering Mercer Island and portions of Bellevue, Renton and Issaquah, made their pitch to voters about why they were best suited to represent them in the state Legislature.
The forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters and moderated by KNKX Reporter Simone Alicea, featured candidates running for two up-for-grabs positions in the state House of Representatives; three are running for the open position 2 seat, and two are running for position 1 against incumbent Rep. Tana Senn. Senn was not present at the forum, but submitted an opening statement that defended her record and highlighted recent Democratic accomplishments in the 2018 legislative session such as passing her gender pay equality bill.
The conservative candidates in the position 1 race, Navy veteran Tim Cruikshank and Libertarian candidate Nathan Deily, cited taxes and fiscal responsibility as some of the primary issues facing the district and the state.
“It’s taxation, it’s spending, and accountability,” Deily said, going on to site legislators’ recent failed effort to exempt themselves from state public disclosure laws as evidence that more government accountability is needed. “We have an accountability problem.”
Similarly, Cruikshank argued that increased public funding for education hasn’t resulted in better student outcomes. “The problem here is not a problem of funding. There’s plenty of money in funding our schools. The problem is how that money is spent.” He also claimed that the express toll lanes on I-405 aren’t helping congestion and are merely revenue sources for the state.
In the position 2 race, Bellevue small business owner Michael Appleby similarly cited education, transportation and fiscal discipline as priority issues, and argued that there are too many existing taxes, such express lane tolls and car tab fees. He also said that I-405 should be expanded to accommodate more conventional non-toll lanes.
In contrast, the Democrats in the race, Vietnamese refugee and pharmacist My-Linh Thai and Mercer Island City Councilmember Wendy Weiker, emphasized issues like education, transportation, the beleaguered mental health system, affordable housing and homelessness.
Weiker argued that the district’s land use needs to be altered to allow for more density and a broader variety of housing options to accommodate the region’s explosive population growth.
“We need to figure out how to increase density around public transportation backbones,” Weiker said. “Housing affordability, figuring out how to have more and different varieties of housing, all of that matters for our quality of life.”
Thai was the only candidate to cite climate change, mental health and universal healthcare as being among her priority issues.
“We are facing a crisis when it comes to climate change and if we are not focused on it, all of us are going to have to face these issues sooner than we think,” Thai said.
On taxes, the conservative candidates were largely uniform in denouncing any kind of a state income tax—a longtime policy favorite of local progressives who view the state’s tax system as regressive for its heavy reliance on sales and property taxes.
“I’m certainly not in favor of an income tax. It’s not going to help anyone in the state,” said Deily, going on to denounce the proposed carbon fee initiative that recently qualified for the 2018 November ballot.
“I oppose a state income tax. I think it’s why we have so many big companies here,” said Cruikshank. He added that the public and private-sector opposition to the employee head tax that was recently passed and revoked in Seattle was proof of voters having “tax fatigue.”
“We need to be very cognizant and aware of how we treat our business owners, both large and small, when we talk about these taxes.”
Thai said that the wealthiest individuals in the state should contribute their fair share in taxes and that tax loopholes should be closed.
“We continue to tax our working families, we continue to tax the people that work the hardest to earn their income,” Thai said. “Those that make more should contribute to the tax system so that we can all move forward.”
Weiker said that as she’s canvassing neighborhoods in the district, voters are telling her that property tax increases are one of their number one issues.
“I know that we need to have a more progressive tax system and not rely as much on property taxes and sales taxes,” Weiker said. “I would consider some kind of capital gains tax as we transition away from the kind of regressive system that we have.”
On Initiative 1631—the carbon fee measure—the candidates were similarly split. Weiker and Thai said that they support the initiative, while Cruikshank, Deily and Appleby all distanced themselves from it, saying that while they supported taking action on climate change, the tax would be regressive and ineffective.
Another initiative on the November ballot is I-1639—the latest gun control initiative fielded by the Alliance for Gun Responsibility and would raise the legal age to buy a semi-automatic rifle to 21 and enhance background checks. The initiative drew support strictly from the Democrats at the forum and opposition from the conservatives.
Weiker said that she’s been collecting signatures for the initiative: “I think gun sensibility laws are crucial.”
Cruikshank tried to thread the needle by saying that while he supports enhancing background checks, he can’t support I-1639 because he also supports people’s constitutional right to bear arms.
The final question of the forum was what issues the candidates wouldn’t budge on if, on those topics, their positions were at odds with those held by their party’s leadership. Only Appleby answered the question with specifics, citing his support of the gas tax, applying public disclosure laws to state legislators, and women’s reproductive rights.
The 2018 primary election will be held Aug. 7 after which the two candidates who earn the most votes will advance to the November general election.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that My-Linh Thai supports a state income tax. The Reporter strives for accuracy and regrets this error.