Democratic Gov.-elect Jay Inslee spent much of last year’s campaign saying he’d be a “disruptive force” in Olympia, vowing to import fresh private-sector talent to state government and solve school-funding woes without raising taxes.
After he’s sworn in Wednesday in a ceremony in the marble rotunda of the state Capitol, Gov. Inslee will face the test of making good on candidate Inslee’s promises.
Greeting the rookie governor is a divided Legislature, a projected budget shortfall of nearly $1 billion and a Washington Supreme Court ruling that the state must boost school funding to meet its No. 1 constitutional duty to educate children.
In recent weeks, Inslee has begun to fill out his fledgling administration, announcing about a dozen hires for senior staff and Cabinet positions. While most of those have gone to state government veterans, he has reached into the private sector for a few.
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Inslee, 61, will be Washington’s 23rd governor, and the fifth Democrat in a row to hold the office over a span of three decades.
He comes to his new job after seven terms as a U.S. congressman from Bainbridge Island, having previously served one term representing Central Washington.
Inslee has never run an organization close to the size of state government, which has a $30 billion general-fund budget and nearly 60,000 general government employees. Until now, his largest management gig was a brief stint as regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the 1990s.
During his campaign, Inslee focused on a few major themes, returning again and again to his lengthy list of job-creation ideas and intention to bring Toyota-style “lean management” practices to state government.
“Right now I think people are a little uncertain about what to expect from him. He ran a campaign that, like most campaigns, was a little short on specifics,” said Richard Davis, president of the Washington Research Council, a nonpartisan business-backed think tank. “There really is a very short period of time to put this together and make people feel confident.”
The politics of the legislative session could be made messier, thanks to the takeover of the state Senate by a fragile majority of 23 Republicans and two breakaway Democrats.
Inslee’s most pressing task is how he’ll navigate through the latest budget storms, given his campaign insistence that he’d oppose — and even veto — general tax increases and rely instead on economic growth to boost state revenues.
Inslee says he’s personally reached out to every legislator and signaled he’s open to suggestions.
“I’m going to entertain every creative idea on how to solve this problem from any point of the political compass,” he said last week at a legislative preview sponsored by The Associated Press.
But his no-new-taxes pledge puts him at odds with many fellow Democrats, including departing Gov. Chris Gregoire, who argue that after years of budget cutbacks, the state must consider higher taxes to preserve public services and adequately fund public schools.
In a lame-duck budget proposal, Gregoire advocated raising an additional $1 billion for schools by raising wholesale taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, and extending business-and-occupation tax surcharges on beer and service businesses due to expire this summer.
Inslee has so far declined to embrace those plans, saying he will roll out his own budget proposal in the coming months.
Democratic allies in unions and liberal think tanks have suggested other ways to raise billions of dollars, including a new tax on capital gains and extending the sales tax to an array of service businesses, such as movie theaters, massage parlors and sporting events.
Republicans, meanwhile, have pointed to Inslee’s campaign promises to rule out tax increases and to focus on making state government more efficient.
“I have to take him at his word. I give him the benefit of the doubt,” said House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis. “We’ll see by his actions in the first couple of months.”
Inslee does have room to maneuver on closing special tax exemptions and loopholes.
He talked repeatedly during the campaign about scrutinizing special business tax breaks that lower state revenues without a strong public benefit.
But Inslee has been vague about which exemptions he might target. And he’s proposed adding some new tax breaks to stimulate growth of startup companies and other businesses.
One prominent Democrat said the divided Legislature will make Inslee’s budget choices easier.
Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said Inslee’s no-taxes promise “is not a hard one to keep” because there are simply not enough votes in the Legislature to pass higher taxes.
Raising taxes would require a two-thirds vote of lawmakers, due to a restriction repeatedly approved by voters, most recently in November.
Even if that were struck down by an ongoing lawsuit, Murray said it wouldn’t change the political reality in Olympia. The only way to pass a tax increase, he said, would be to send it to a public vote.
Inslee’s other early task has been to assemble his administration. While it’s too early to fully evaluate his pledge to bring in new blood and private-sector experience, the incoming governor so far has made a few stabs in that direction.
Of about a dozen Cabinet and senior staff hires announced so far, four have come from chiefly private-sector backgrounds.
Perhaps Inslee’s most out-of-the-box pick so far is Kevin Quigley, nominated to head the Department of Social and Health Services. Quigley served a term as a state senator from Snohomish County in the 1990s but has been working for years in the private sector, most recently running the Everett subsidiary of a major shipbuilder.
Inslee also chose Dale Peinecke, president and CEO of an Everett aerospace company, as the new head of the Department of Employment Security, which manages unemployment insurance.
Inslee also hired David Postman, former spokesman for Paul Allen’s company Vulcan, and a former Seattle Times political reporter, to head his communications office.
On Tuesday, Inslee announced his latest Cabinet choice, hiring Michael Cockrill as the state’s chief information officer.
Cockrill has worked at various tech startups and Microsoft.
The new governor’s chief of staff, Mary Alice Heuschel, while not from the private sector, is also an unusual pick — having served the last seven years as superintendent of the Renton School District.
Most of Inslee’s other early hires have had a conventional feel.
He’s brought on his campaign manager and former congressional aide Joby Shimomura as a senior adviser.
And Inslee turned to longtime state government veterans to fill several other senior adviser and Cabinet-level positions.
The state Republican Party has mocked Inslee’s hiring, calling his choices “status quo” and ”Olympia insiders” in news releases.
But former Gregoire chief of staff Cindy Zehnder praised Inslee’s efforts to look for private-sector executives, something Gregoire did, too.
“I think it’s very valuable. It brings in a fresh perspective and questions,” Zehnder said.
Tom Fitzsimmons, former chief of staff to Gregoire and former Gov. Gary Locke, said “there is nothing new here in Jay’s aspirations to bring in new leadership,” but added, “you have to keep some of the old to be able to really have the right balance.”
Inslee is still evaluating whether to retain or replace other top government administrators, including Department of Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner