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April 9, 2012 at 2:30 PM

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Partisan brawl over cost of special election for Inslee's former congressional seat

Republicans continue to pound Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Jay Inslee over the expense of the special election to pick a temporary replacement for the 1st District congressional seat he abandoned last month.

State GOP Chairman Kirby Wilbur called a news conference Monday morning in downtown Seattle to demand that Inslee pay for the special election.

"He could pay this bill, rather than stick it on taxpayers," Wilbur said.

Secretary of State Sam Reed's office has estimated the special election could cost the state close to $1 million.

But it turns out that figure is misleading. The bulk of that "cost" is merely a budgetary shift to the state from the three counties involved in the special election. (More on that below.)

Posing for TV cameras, eight Republicans supposedly from Inslee's district joined Wilbur this morning to hold signs and copies of "invoices" asking Inslee to pay up. The invoices were delivered to Inslee's campaign office, where a sign near the elevator declared "GOP Stunt Welcome."

But Democrats are disputing the special election costs and accusing Reed of exaggerating the figure to make Inslee look bad.

State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz pointed out that Reed, a Republican, is the Thurston County co-chairman of McKenna's gubernatorial campaign.

"I think it shows poor judgment on the part of the secretary of state, who is responsible for conducting elections, to be so visibly connected with this election, especially when his numbers appear to be faulty," Pelz said in an interview outside Inslee's office shortly after the Republican "stunt."

It appears Democrats may be correct on at least one point -- the special election will not cost taxpayers as a whole $1 million in additional expenses.

Rather, the bulk of that figure -- an estimated $770,000 -- is what King, Kitsap and Snohomish counties will be allowed to charge the state for the special election under a "charge back" formula under state law, according to Reed's office.

"The number does not track the incremental cost of having the extra race on the ballot," state elections co-director Katie Blinn wrote in a memo shared by Reed's office Monday.

So while it will cost the state budget that amount, the three counties involved will get a budget boost.

The remaining $225,000 is Reed's estimate for "voter education" his office is requesting to explain to voters how the confusing special election will work. (The special election will pick a replacement for Inslee to serve for about a month after the November result is certified. Meanwhile, a separate vote will simultaneously take place under the new 1st District boundaries to pick a representative for the full, two-year term. )

Dave Ammons, a spokesman for Reed, pushed back on the Democratic attacks on Reed's motives, saying the cost figures came from the three counties involved, and "were not ginned up by this office."

Reed's office has no plans to ask Inslee to share in the election cost.

And don't expect the Inslee campaign to volunteer.

Sterling Clifford, the Inslee campaign's communications director, said he doesn't believe the Republican cost numbers are accurate and added the number Inslee wants to discuss is 288,000 -- the number of Washingtonians who are out of work.

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