Elections

Senate candidates for 48th District clash on budget, SR 520

Gregg Bennett is challenging Rondey Tom in the 48th District. - Contributed
Gregg Bennett is challenging Rondey Tom in the 48th District.
— image credit: Contributed

State Sen. Rodney Tom (D-Bellevue) and his colleagues in Washington’s 48th Legislative District - Rep. Ross Hunter (D-Bellevue) and Rep. Debb Eddy (D-Kirkland) - have been known to hold town halls at least once a month in the district. Tom recalls what one voter said to him after one forum this year.

“The guy turned in this $20 bill and said, ‘I might not always agree with you, but I really appreciate the town halls, the depth of your answers and that you actually study the issues,’” Tom said.

Such statements give Tom a boost of confidence about his job, but the incumbent is going to have to fight to keep it against his challenger, Republican Gregg Bennett, a Seattle native and businessman.

“I am extremely effective in representing this district,” said Tom, who calls the 48th a fiscally conservative, socially-moderate district. “It’s going to take somebody like myself who has the wherewithal in a majority caucus to be able to best represent this district.”

Tom earned the endorsement of Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland firefighters, Microsoft Corp. and more than a dozen notable individuals.

Bennett, a business consultant and owner of the Bellevue Baseball Club, describes himself on his official campaign Web site as “a no-nonsense, results-oriented manager.”

“You need a new breed of legislators who are willing to manage and hold people accountable rather than simply balancing money,” Bennett said. “We may have less money than we’ve had in the past and that just takes a different set of skills, and those are the skills I have.”

Bennett has earned the endorsement of The Seattle Mariners, Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna, Senate Republican Caucus leader Mike Hewitt and members of the Nordstrom family.

Bennett’s campaign treasure chest continues to flow, raising more than $400,000 in contributions – that’s more than any other state legislative campaign, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.

Tom counters that the race is not about money.

“Our campaign has $200,000 less (than Bennett) and I made sure that if we didn’t have the money, we didn’t buy the media,” he said.

The men discussed their priorities for office with the Reporter with less than 30 days to go before the Nov. 2 general election.

Criticism of opponent

Gregg Bennett has one question for his opponent in the race for the State Senator position in the 48th District: Who is Rodney Tom?

After flip-flopping on a number of issues - including voting against the 2010 budget that he helped write - Bennett said it’s time for Tom to go.

“Even people in his own party have criticized him in a number of ways that he’s obviously very conflicted (and there’s some) trust issues,” Bennett said. “I think our district needs someone who’s a lot more principled and who fights for their values.”

The vote has put Tom on somewhat of a defensive, writing, “There was little done to permanently reshape the size and function of government,” in his spring newsletter recapping the 2010 session.

Tom said the biggest criticism of his opponent is that Bennett is trying to “buy this election,” and does not believe that “throwing in your own money multiple times” demonstrates fiscal responsibility.

The Budget

Going into the 2011 legislative session in January, both candidates say spending and the budget is their biggest priority.

Tom, who holds a powerful position as the vice chair of Ways & Means Committee, warns legislators will likely be faced with a $3 billion budget shortfall in the next session. Tom said that the current economic environment is “very tentative.”

Tom cites cuts the legislature could have made last time: For one, closing McNeil Island Corrections Center - the state’s most expensive prison - could have saved an additional $10-$12 million; another cut: getting the state out of the retail liquor business.

“We need to concentrate on the core priorities of government,” Tom said. “You need a voice like mine … to make sure we’re not playing games with numbers.”

Bennett also says legislators must return to the “priorities of government” doctrine that former Democratic Gov. Gary Locke championed, funding only projects that are most important. Prioritizing public safety, education and creating a long-term sustainable budget should come first, Bennett said.

“Our legislators are going to have to act like managers rather than benevolent grandparents,” he said.

Bennett said that not all of his proposals cost money and add to the deficit.

SR-520

Tom cited the progress that State Route 520 has made during the last legislative session, saying the $4.65 billion project is going ahead after Gov. Christine Gregoire stated her preferred alternative.

Gregoire signed Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill (ESSB) 6392, which proposes toll funding for the bridge to help cover the cost. The pontoons were approved and financed this summer and construction will officially begin in November, Tom said. Hopefully, a contractor will be awarded: “The iron is hot, we should strike,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, who sat on the 520 task force with Tom.

As a vice chairman of the 520 work group, Tom pushed for replacing SR-520 with a wider new bridge than Seattle Democrats want –six lanes with the possibility to add Lightrail in the future.

“If Gregg Bennett was your senator in this district, this year, 520 would not have happened,” Tom said. “520 is critical to our economy and our major employers; Microsoft is very dependent on that being a functional corridor. Currently it’s not, and if you think that 520 is finished, then you don’t know (Democratic state House Speaker) Frank Chopp (who has been critical of the project).”

But Bennett attacked Tom saying, “I think Rodney Tom claiming credit for 520 is a little bit like Al Gore taking credit for inventing the internet.”

Bennett said the issue facing Olympia now is what is the Seattle side of the bridge going to look like and how is it going to be paid for.

“There are long-term funding sources that may be available, but there is no … funding source identified at this time (on) this side of the bridge or on the other side of the bridge,” Bennett said.

Just a few days ago, the SR-520 work group sent a final report to the governor and the legislature on improved designs and better transit connections for the new SR-520 in Seattle.

Tom said there may be unforeseen challenges in getting the revamped 520 project off the ground, including making sure tolling transitions work and getting the financing plan carried out. Until those things happen, “someone is always going to want to throw a wrench” at the situation, Tom said.

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