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McKenna vs. Inslee: A debate with a few twists

Jay Inslee, left, and Rob McKenna at a debate. Credit: State of Reform

There’s no question Republican Rob McKenna was more focused and aggressive than Democrat Jay Inslee in their third gubernatorial debate, which took place Tuesday night in Yakima. But McKenna made at least one statement that could cause him problems — a new proposal for driver’s “permits” to replace drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants.

Unfortunately, unlike in the first gubernatorial debate, moderated superbly by Northwest Public Radio’s Austin Jenkins, the format in this debate apparently did not allow the moderator to ask follow-up questions to probe weaknesses in the candidates’ statements.

Suggesting he knows he’s behind in the polls, McKenna, the state attorney general, repeatedly jabbed Inslee. He accused the former congressman of dodging questions, making false accusations, lacking credibility, and not knowing what he was talking about. Inslee did not respond in kind, maintaining a genial tone throughout the hour-long exchange, moderated by KCTS-TV’s Enrique Cerna.

McKenna particularly scored points against Inslee in touting his focus on tax and regulatory reform to boost business hiring, while Inslee kept referring vaguely to his 75-point plan to jump-start the economy. My wife rolled her eyes when Inslee mentioned his 75-point plan for the third or fourth time during the debate. Both men dodged the elephant in the room — the likely need to raise taxes to adequately fund public education.

But Inslee had the edge in an extended discussion of the federal health care reform law’s extension of Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians with incomes below 138 percent of the poverty level. That said, Inslee failed to fully capitalize on holes in McKenna’s argument.

McKenna indicated his opposition to the Medicaid expansion, which the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark June decision made optional. He said it would be better to provide health coverage for low-income and uninsured residents through private insurance. But McKenna did not say how he would achieve or pay for that. Indeed, the Affordable Care Act was passed precisely because 50 million Americans lack coverage, many because their employers don’t offer it and they can’t afford it on their own.

Inslee argued that it’s unacceptable to leave all those Washingtonians uninsured. He contended that turning down the federal Medicaid expansion, which will pay 100 percent of the cost for the expanded population for the first two years and 90 percent in subsequent years, makes no sense because Washington taxpayers will pay for the Medicaid expansion in other states. In addition, he said, the lack of coverage exposes insured Washingtonians to a “hidden tax” of $1,000 per family to pay for health care for the uninsured.

The biggest surprise for me came when the candidates were questioned about a proposal to change Washington’s current law that allows the state to issue driver’s licenses without proof of legal residence in the U.S. Inslee argued that the state should begin requiring proof of residence within Washington but should continue issuing standard driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants living here. He said it’s counterproductive, for instance, to make it difficult for undocumented students to drive to school.

In contrast, McKenna argued the state should begin requiring proof of U.S. legal status for driver’s licenses. While agreeing that illegal immigrants shouldn’t be denied the legal opportunity to drive, he proposed that the state issue them merely a “driver’s permit” that could not be used as standard identification the way a driver’s license is used.

Unfortunately, Inslee and moderator Cerna failed to point out the obvious problems with McKenna’s proposal. How many undocumented people with any sense would go to a state office and say, “I’m an illegal immigrant, I have no papers, and I need a driver’s permit”? And if they’re stopped by a cop for a traffic ticket, how many would want to present red-letter proof that they are in the country illegally?

Few if any would apply for such a permit. That almost certainly would mean many more people in Washington would be driving without a license, which would jeopardize public safety.

At one point in the debate, McKenna rebuked Inslee by saying it was hard to take him seriously. On this issue, that rebuke could be turned back on McKenna.

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