Though how to improve the state’s ailing school system, and methods to support the resurrection of the region’s small business economy may seem like issues requiring different diagnosis and treatment, they are both symptoms of the same illness. That illness is a shortage of state revenue and an inappropriate and ineffective tax structure.
That was the message of all four candidates seeking to represent Issaquah and Sammamish in the State Legislature, during two back-to-back forums in Issaquah this week.
On Tuesday night, 5th District Republican incumbents Jay Rodne (position 1) and Glenn Anderson (position 2) squared off against Democrat challengers Greg Hoover (position 1) and David Spring (position 2) in a forum organized by the Issaquah Valley Elementary School PTSA, focused on education issues.
Twelve hours later the four candidates addressed the Issaquah and Sammamish chambers of commerce, at a Wednesday morning breakfast forum at Issaquah Hilton Gardens, answering questions about small business taxes and economic incentives.
And while the audiences were dramatically different, the candidates’ routines were mostly unchanged, holding up the same scapegoats for an economic system which is failing in its paramount duty to support public schools, and an economic recession which now sees more than 300,000 Washingtonians unemployed.
For Anderson and Rodne it was the Democratic majority in Olympia, which they said has, in the nine and six years (respectively) of their terms, resisted their best efforts to support small business and be more fiscally responsible.
Though they differ on many things, for Hoover and Spring it was an unfair system of tax exemptions for large corporations and the very wealthy which they say is robbing schools and small businesses of funding and investment.
What was particularly clear was the efforts of the incumbents to distant themselves from the political establishment to which they belong, taking advantage of what is now fashionably portrayed by most media outlets as a widespread dissatisfaction with the current state and federal politics.
At one point Rodne preached “an agenda of change,” a refrain typically applied to challengers, not incumbents.
“The majority in Olympia is hostile to small business,” Rodne said, claiming he and other Republicans had for years been hamstrung by a Democratic majority in the state’s capitol.
His criticism of state spending, and workers’ compensation, labor protection and unemployment insurance rates was a message that went down well with chamber members, who a number of times responded with rousing applause more reminiscent of a party rally than an impartial, bipartisan forum.
Rodne echoed the sentiments of Anderson when he said “(Labor and Industries) rates, and unemployment insurance rates – those are business killers.”
He said he was opposed to the suspension of Tim Eyman’s Initiative 960 earlier this year, which had required a supermajority of legislators to raise taxes.
“The whole point of I-960 was to encourage bipartisanship in the budget process,” he said, adding that requiring two-thirds of legislators to agree was a catalyst for political cooperation.
Rodne, Anderson, and Hoover all looked much more at ease in front of a business audience than they did the previous evening, where former teacher Spring reveled in a conversation on the state of our schools – which has said all along is his primary motivation for running for office.
Spring’s economic strategy, and his campaign, is built upon removing what he says are unfair tax exemptions for big businesses and the wealthy. Spring, who owns a small business in Bellevue, has said that if corporations like Microsoft paid the same taxes as small businesses, many of the state’s economic problems would be solved, including the funding of public schools.
“I will repeal all these exemptions and put the dollars back into schools where they belong,” he said on Tuesday night. “I would do this by having the richest corporations on the planet pay their fair share.”
Spring said he was opposed to raising the levy lid for school districts, as this shifted state’s responsibility to fund schools onto local jurisdictions.
“I will introduce a bill to limit the levy lid to 10 percent,” he said. “Because I want to force the state to (fulfill) its constitutional duty. High levy lids also hurt families, because it essentially means raising property taxes. Why should homeowners in this state be asked to pay more?”
Spring said the tax rate for small businesses was between two and three times that of large corporations, and that requiring big business to pay its “fair share” would solve a lot of the state’s economic dilemmas.
“I disagree that we don’t have any other options,” he said. “We have plenty of other options – we just need the political will to do the right thing.”
Though clearly lacking the polish of his incumbent rival Anderson, Spring has a fervor in his message that was a feature of both panels. What will likely divide voters is his delivery, which is abrupt and abrasive.
But what Anderson lacks in visible passion he makes up for with knowledge of the political machine. Republican colleague Rodne described Anderson as “the lead on K-12 policy, really, in the state.”
Whether or not this is something Anderson would want on his resume is debatable – given the poor state of the Washington public school system it is much like being known as the architect of the Titanic.
Among his plans to improve the performance of public schools, Anderson said the retention of teachers based solely on seniority was a problem that needed addressing. He suggested a portfolio-based approach for assessing teacher performance, that included, but was not limited to, student test scores.
“That my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, or those in education labor organizations, actively resist teacher evaluations and merit-based measures is absolutely unconscionable,” he said, adding that too-much job security for senior teachers reduced their motivation to develop as educators, and may lead to them “losing their edge.”
“Once you’ve got your seniority there’s nothing that can dig you out,” he said.
But Anderson’s plan to fix the economy and the school system does not include Initiative 1098, a proposal sponsored by Bill Gates Snr which raises taxes for the wealthiest 1.2 percent of the population, cuts state property taxes 20 percent, and eliminates Business and Occupation (B&O) taxes for small businesses.
Anderson disagrees with Gates’ claim that 1098 would raise $2 billion a year for education and health care. The text of the initiative includes accountability requirements that revenues will only be used for education and healthcare.
“Education and health care will never see one dime of any dollar,” he said.
Following traditional Republican lines, Rodne, too, said he was against 1098.
“We cannot tax our way to economic prosperity,” he said. “We have a spending problem. We have to redefine the size and scope of government.”
It is a claim Spring has often countered, pointing to figures which show that, while taxes on the middle class are above the national average, and rising, state government spending is below the national average and has been shrinking over the past decade.
But Rodne is basing his campaign on the in vogue anti-government message, referring to his “reform agenda” that is very different to “the majority in Olympia.” His pro-business sentiments were popular at the chamber, but offered little to the teachers and parents at Issaquah Valley Elementary the night before.
Rodne suggested one way to improve the education system was by having children spend more time at school.
“Our school year is too short,” he said, adding that Washington should follow the lead of countries like South Korea, where children spend about 240 days a year, and 12 or 13 hours a day, at school. Rodne said he met with a group of Korean students who visited the district recently.
“They laughed at the rigor and curriculum of schools in the Snoqualmie School District,” he said.
Rodne said Republicans had been “shut out of the budget process for more than a decade,” and painted a dire picture of the state’s finances.
“We are in a calamity,” he said. “This state is on a crash course to insolvency. The only way we are going to solve it is by growing our private sector.”
Though Rodne and Hoover have, until now, made a point of their amicable relationship and respect for each other, it appears that, in the shadow of November, the honeymoon is over.
“I don’t believe in scare tactics,” Hoover said, of Rodne’s grim evaluation. “They’re not scare tactics, Greg,” Rodne snapped back.
And though Hoover has referred to himself as a “business Democrat,” and shares a number of economic philosophies with his Republican rival, including opposition to 1098, he said government had an important role to play.
“You can’t improve the private sector in a recession without help from the government,” he said.
Hoover, who owns and operates a law firm and a real estate agency, said cutting the long list of exemptions to the B&O tax would raise state revenue. But his desire to raise the tax responsibility of wealthy corporations was more modest than Spring’s.
“Are we going to cut (tax exemptions for) Boeing and Microsoft? I don’t think we want to cut everything they have,” he said. “These are the major employers in our state. But we need to sit down with them.”
Spring and Hoover recently spoke to the Sammamish Kiwanis Club at its weekly breakfast meeting.
Rodne and Anderson will meet follow them at Kiwanis meetings in the next few weeks. The meetings are free and the public is encouraged to attend.
For more information about Sammamish Kiwanis visit www.sammamishkiwanis.org