Elections

35th District races could turn legislative tide

The Legislature's vote this year making it easier to raise taxes didn't sit well with Dan Griffey, a Mason County firefighter. It spurred him to go to the state Capitol to speak out against suspending the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases.

Six months later, the Republican from Allyn is running to unseat six-term Democratic Rep. Kathy Haigh from Position 1 in the 35th District, and the race could be heading for an upset.

Haigh, a veterinarian, led Griffey by just 232 votes after the Aug. 17 vote. That makes this race the most serious challenge to Haigh since she took office. Haigh got the most votes in west Thurston and Mason Counties, but Griffey led in northeast Grays Harbor and southern Kitsap counties.

The candidates are sharply split on the way that majority Democrats chose to raise almost $800 million in new taxes and other revenue to help plug a $2.8 billion budget gap and avoid deeper cuts to schools and health programs. They disagree especially over Haigh’s vote to suspend Initiative 960, the two-thirds vote requirement on taxes, until mid-2011.

Their race is the closest of three in the 35th District this fall. Minority Republicans are eyeing the races as they try to undermine the Democrats’ 61-37 majority in the House and 31-18 in the Senate, perhaps winning back majorities.

Also on the Nov. 2 ballot in the 35th:

State Sen. Tim Sheldon, a 20-year veteran of the Legislature and Democratic maverick from Potlatch. He is challenged by first-time candidate Nancy Williams, who describes herself as a “tea party grandma” and Republican from Allyn.

In the Position 2 House race, first term Rep. Fred Finn, a moderate Democrat and businessman from west Thurston County, faces Bremerton Republican Linda Simpson. The challenger is a teacher with a Boys and Girls Club who also has built underwater mines for the Navy Reserve.

GRIFFEY VS. HAIGH

“People are upset. I don’t blame them,” Haigh, 59, said recently. “They are looking for, maybe, new ideas. I think that is difficult because right now you need people (in the Legislature) with real understanding of where the money comes from and how it goes out the door.”

Haigh chairs an education appropriations committee and sticks by her votes for a tax package that raised the business and occupations tax rate for service businesses, and added new taxes to soda candy and bottled water. Some of the new tax money helped avoid the deeper cuts to public schools and college tuition programs that Gov. Chris Gregoire had proposed in her first budget in late 2009.

Haigh said it was right to suspend Initiative 960’s requirement for a two-thirds vote to raise taxes – believing the state needed revenue and that a simple majority should rule, just as it does for school levies. She says her primary focus is on education and will continue to be if she is re-elected.

Griffey has rejected Haigh’s argument on I-960 ever since he went to the Capitol to observe legislative action in the spring. Griffey met Senate candidate Williams and other disgruntled taxpayers during that time and says he now wants to cut the cost and size of government – even more than what Gov. Chris Gregoire is doing with across-the-board cuts to some programs.

But Griffey has been vague in explaining how he might bridge a $4.5 billion shortfall next year or how he could have balanced the books this year with a $2.8 billion budget hole.

He has mentioned a few small items in the budget that he’d look at first: money spent on Lottery advertising, a few hundred thousand dollars spent on a film office, and the $6 million he thinks the state can earn from leasing out space at highway rest stops for restaurants or other services.

Griffey also thinks the state should go on providing health benefits to workers but that costs can be reduced if insurers face fewer regulations. And he said the state should look at putting its ferry system into private hands and possibly selling off land the University of Washington owns in Seattle.

Griffey and Haigh also differ on whether the state should pay to operate all-day kindergarten. Haigh favors it and led efforts to begin funding it at roughly one-fifth of the state’s schools, intending to add more over time.

But Griffey opposes it, saying it is one of the reasons the state has budget problems. He wants to consider a different approach such as online education to help parents teach their own kids.

Haigh said she voted for the state’s tax package because she wanted to avoid cuts to levy equalization, the extra payments to tax-poor school districts.

But looking ahead she said lawmakers are unlikely to get new revenue – and she does not think there will be money for teacher pay raises or to continue with payments to reduce class sizes in public schools.

Two citizen initiatives – I-728 and I-732, which provided class-size improvements and cost-of-living raises for teachers – are large pieces of the budget shortfall, Haigh said. Together those make up more than $1 billion of the gap next year, she explained.

“It’s going to be extremely painful. It’s going to have to be done. I don’t see another way” than making cuts, Haigh said.

The candidates also say they want to help businesses. Griffey says he would offer tax credits – which could reduce state revenue – to reward small businesses that hire trainees.

Haigh says retraining, better education and higher education are keys to creating opportunity for workers and businesses.

Haigh enjoys a fundraising advantage with $62,176 raised and $5,628 spent through early October. Griffey raised $28,367 and spent $27,476. Top contributions to Haigh’s campaign include $5,000 from the House Democratic Campaign Committee and $1,600 each from the Washington Education Association PAC, the Washington State Dental PAC, Walmart, Washington School Principals and the Washington State Optometric Association.

Griffey’s campaign received $3,500 from the 35th Legislative Central Committee (Republican), $1,600 from William E. Boeing Jr., $1,300 from Washington Realtors, $1,000 from the state Republican Party and $800 each from conservative activist Gary Randall and the Washington Affordable Housing Council (a builders’ PAC).

FINN VS. SIMPSON

In the other House race, Finn got over 46 percent of the primary vote but had just 2,002 more votes than Simpson, who received 40 percent. An independent candidate got the rest. But Finn holds a colossal fundraising edge over Simpson and he has a long list of endorsements, including support from business and environmental groups.

Finn is the single largest fundraiser of all the 35th District candidates with nearly $112,500 raised and $83,077 spent. Simpson has reported raising no money and has pledged not to raise or spend more than $5,000. House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt says it has been hard for his caucus to help Simpson because she was turning down donations from outsiders.

Finn’s biggest donors include $5,000 from the House Democratic Campaign Committee, $4,000 from his own pocket and $1,600 each from CenturyTel Inc., Hillview LLC, Lakeview Village Apartments, retiree Virginia Blechman, the State Dental PAC and Washington Realtors. He received $800 each from several groups – including BNSF Railway Co., Broadband Communications Association of Washington PAC, Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and the Washington Beverage Association (received well before his vote for the tax on soda).

Finn and Simpson are as different from each other on policy as their lives appear to be – although both have had turns in the military. Finn is a former federal communications lawyer in Washington, D.C., who moved out West, started a radio station and ran a paint store in Olympia before joining the Griffin School Board. He later went into commercial real-estate and apartment renovations.

Simpson says she writes lesson plans for a Bremerton boys and girls program, has assembled underwater mines for the Navy Reserve, and has two special-needs children. She got into the race because she did not think raising taxes was a good idea and thinks lawmakers have been reluctant to cut spending because they are too afraid of losing elections.

Simpson wants to shrink government, eliminate requirements for what kinds of care health insurers must cover, roll back business taxes and reduce regulations on businesses. She wants to hand more of the state’s functions over to the private sector, including liquor sales, tourism promotion, historical museums and perhaps the horse racing commission.

She acknowledged these fall well short of closing the state budget gap but said all agency spending needs more scrutiny, including the many agencies with a hand in protecting water quality. She also thinks public employee benefits have become too generous.

“We have to renegotiate the state employee contracts,” she said in an interview. “I’m not saying so much that they are overpaid but when did it become such a lucrative business to work for the government? It’s public service.”

Finn has a varied background in government, business, the military and extensive community involvement, and says that is valuable. “I’ve brought a sense of aggressive moderation to parts of the Democratic Party,” he said. “I ended up on seven different committees, which is more than most folks and didn’t miss a single floor vote.”

Finn also secured money for the Belfair bypass project and the Potlatch sewer project, and noted that he passed bills to help salmon enhancement groups and increase penalties for timber theft.

Finn voted for the tax-increase package, which included higher tariffs on tobacco, soda and service businesses, because the alternative was gutting the safety net, he said. But he voted against the I-960 suspension and says he won’t support across-the-board tax increases next year if re-elected.

Finn might sponsor a tax-credit bill for businesses that hire and wants to be sure other bills don’t harm business.

He thinks the 20-year-old Growth Management Act needs to be revisited to see where it succeeded, failed and needs adjusting.

SHELDON VS. WILLIAMS

In the Senate race, Sheldon easily led first-time candidate Williams – the “tea party grandma” – in the primary. Williams is running mainly against the federal health-care reform and would act to keep it from being implemented in Washington.

Williams is a former postmaster and co-owner of small businesses who has never held elective office.

Sheldon has served in the Legislature 20 years, is a Mason County commissioner, helps run a family-owned natural resources business near Hood Canal and has run the Mason County Economic Development Council.

Williams wants to lop government spending, reduce regulations for businesses, liquidate state assets including selling some buildings and forests to pay debt, and cut down on abuses she sees in entitlement programs, such as welfare.

Williams said she has no quarrel with Sheldon directly and would vote much as he has. But she said Sheldon is not as effective for the 35th District as he could be if he had support of his Democratic Party, and she thinks there should be term limits of perhaps six to eight years.

Sheldon defended his dual service in county and state government and said he’s been able to bring “a realization of local governments’ needs” to the Senate Democratic Caucus. “I’m also a conservative,” he said and described his legislative service as a calling.

Sheldon said state government needs restructuring to end its sales of liquor, to put printing operations out to the private sector and to consolidate functions such as personnel for agencies. Sheldon also wants more incentives to encourage early retirements and reduce state personnel.

“I think we’re really going to have to resize state government – about 15 percent less than we’ve been spending. The $30 billion (general fund) mark has got to be a high water mark for a long, long time,” Sheldon said. “Our revenue is going to be reduced for a while.” Williams said she also favors putting liquor sales into the hands of private businesses and farming out printing. Both candidates line up similarly in wanting less state spending and opposing this year’s tax increases.

Sheldon’s campaign has a huge financial edge, having raised $103,640 and spent $27,476. His biggest contributors are corporate and special interests. Donations include $1,600 each from AT&T, Avista, Campaign for Tribal Self-Reliance, CenturyTel, Holland America Line, Liberty Mutual Group, Physicians Eye PAC, Physicians Insurance, Puget Sound Energy, Verizon Wireless, Washington Realtors, Washington Medical PAC, Washington State Dental PAC and Walmart.

Williams has raised $7,524 and spent $6,245. Her biggest contributions were $1,813 from Mason County Republicans, $700 from Shirley Fisher, $400 each from Alpha Test Corp. and Robert Maesner, $300 from retiree Joseph Morrison, and $250 from the Mason County Republican Women’s Club.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com www.theolympian.com/politicsblog

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