House hopefuls a sharply divided lot

Jobs, wages and health care separate the trio in a debate.

Candidates for a 23rd district House seat offered sharply contrasting views on jobs, wages and health care costs at a forum Thursday.

Democrat Sherry Appleton, Republican Frank Mahaffay and Libertarian Dan Goebel are vying for the district’s Position 1 spot as incumbent island Democrat Phil Rockefeller makes a move for the state Senate. The three candidates were part of a forum hosted by the Bremerton Chamber of Commerce.

Audience members steered the debate, orienting their questions toward economic issues, first challenging candidates to stake a position on wages.

Appleton, a lobbyist and former Poulsbo City Council member, advocated a “livable wage” set at $16.38 per hour. She said families cannot get by on the state’s $7.16 per hour minimum wage.

“It’s not enough,” she said. “Even working 40 hours a week, people earning the minimum wage can’t support their families.”

Appleton said a wage boost would also increase consumer spending and help small businesses. Goebel, a private contractor in Keyport, questioned the feasibility and necessity of a livable wage.

“It’s all well and fine, but some 16-year-old kids can get by on minimum wage,” he said.

Mahaffay defied the notion of a regulated livable wage, arguing that wages and living costs are dependent on location and that other factors, such as employment benefits, should be factored in. He also advocated capping the minimum wage while creating higher-paying jobs that support families.

“I’m not in support of increasing the minimum wage,” Mahaffay said. “It hinders our ability to create living-wage jobs. If the minimum wage does increase, employers will cut benefits, pass (costs) on to consumers or eliminate jobs.”

Mahaffay said he would tackle the state’s 6.2 percent unemployment rate by relieving burdens on business. He advocated the privatization of workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance to reduce costs.

Goebel also argued for lightening business regulations to generate jobs and said he would work to eliminate the Business and Occupation tax.

Appleton advocated high-tech communications and transportation connections to improve employment in Kitsap County. She expressed support for more business links to the high speed fiber-optic line and improvements to ferries and bridges. Ultimately, generating and keeping good jobs in the county requires well-funded schools, she said.

“Having a skilled workforce means putting money into education,” she said.

Candidates disagreed over the economic impacts of Initiative 892, which would allow electronic slot machines outside of tribal casinos. Mahaffay said I-892 would generate jobs, boost the state economy and reduce property taxes.

Goebel disagreed, arguing that Nevada-based companies would draw over 60 percent of private gambling profits in Washington through I-892.

“Most of the money from Indian casinos stays in the state,” he said. “We’re better off without private gambling.”

Appleton also warned that I-892 would break compacts with tribes and require new enforcement and regulation policies. She also said the measure would endanger police funding generated by tribal casino profits.

Candidates also offered differing strategies for cutting health care costs after an audience member said she spends about $1,000 a month on prescription drugs for her husband.

Appleton said it was “criminal” that anyone would have to pay so much for necessary medications. Appleton said her mother was charged almost $300 a month for breast cancer drugs, but found she could obtain a three-month supply of the same medication from Canada for under $70. She said state residents shouldn’t have to pay such high rates when Canada offers them at affordable prices.

Goebel also expressed support for importing drugs from Canada.

“Costs are skyrocketing,” he said. “To keep costs down, we need to open up our borders.”

Mahaffay cautioned against buying drugs outside the U.S.

“I’m very concerned about the importation of drugs, from a safety perspective,” he said. “Many are made in China or Korea and have different chemical makeups.”

He said lawsuits against drug manufacturers and doctors are a major factor in high health care prices. Tort reform to reduce lawsuits against health care providers is a major tenet of Mahaffay’s campaign platform.

“People have to understand that drug companies are afraid of lawsuits,” he said. “We have to protect them.”

Appleton strongly disagreed with Mahaffay’s assertion that lawsuits are driving up health care costs.

She cited court statistics from the top nine most populated counties in Washington that showed just over 3,000 civil tort cases were filed between 1997 and 2003. Only 94 went before a judge and over 60 were found in favor of doctors, she said. With just 30 cases ruled in favor of plaintiffs in six years, Appleton said the impact of lawsuits on health care costs was negligible.

Mahaffay questioned how many cases were settled out of court, with providers possibly handing over significant sums to plaintiffs to avoid legal complications.

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