Gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna urges investing in education

Attorney General Rob McKenna said Washington needs to reform state government and invest in education -- and those are priorities he will set if elected governor next year.

McKenna, a Republican from Bellevue, is running to replace Gov. Chris Gregoire when her second term ends. He was a guest Wednesday of the Tri-City Development Council at a Meet the Candidate luncheon in Richland.

Gregoire, a Democrat, has opted not to run for a third term.

McKenna said Washington has an "hourglass-shaped problem" the state can work to solve by putting money back into education from preschool to higher ed.

The hourglass bulges with the unemployed at one end and unfilled jobs at the other -- jobs that go unfilled because employers can't find workers with the right skill sets.

He said the state needs to reverse the trend of defunding community colleges and universities and take steps to improve the quality of education in public K-12 schools.

"We have to recognize our public schools are not getting the job done the way they're supposed to," McKenna said.

But he also wants to see investments made in early learning and after-school programs that help children succeed.

"Want to reduce the dropout rate? Invest in 3-year-olds," he said.

He would like to see more control given to principals to make decisions about their schools, with them being accountable for student performance in return.

He also would like to see college and university administrators given the ability to award competitive contracts for services when that would be more cost-effective than hiring employees.

McKenna also spoke about the importance of energy and agriculture in the state and said he would like to see the federal Bureau of Reclamation's Columbia Basin Project finished and irrigation extended to an additional half-million acres of agricultural land.

"I want to say I believe we are on the cusp of 50 years of economic growth in agriculture -- on the cusp of a boom," he said.

On energy policy, McKenna said he would like to see federal support for the next generation of nuclear power technology and to see the license extended for the Columbia Generating Station in Richland.

He drew applause from the audience when he said he would like to see the Legislature declare hydropower a renewable energy source.

The latter has been a sticking point for lawmakers for the past few years as Republicans have pushed to have Initiative 937 amended so power companies can count their purchase of hydropower toward their quotas for power from renewable sources.

The initiative, approved by about 52 percent of the state's voters in 2006, required electric utilities with 25,000 or more customers to meet targets for the use of renewable energy and energy conservation.

"Why do the PUDs and the municipalities have to pay inflated prices for alternative energy they don't need?" McKenna asked. "Why don't we consider hydropower as a nonpolluting, nongreenhouse gas-emitting, renewable source?"

He noted the Tri-Cities is a bright spot in the state's economy that can be a leader in research and innovation.

"You're really laying out the foundation for the state and Tri-Cities' future," he said. "There's so much energy here -- and not just the electric energy my friends at Benton PUD provide."