Next Generation Washington: Our perspective on this year’s state legislative agenda

As we begin a new year, lawmakers from across Washington state have been sharing the policy positions they are advocating for during this year’s legislative session.  Increasingly public interest groups have also called for increased transparency by others who “walk the halls” in the state capitol, including companies.  We thought about this and concluded that these groups make a good point; after all, the democratic process benefits from more open and public discussion.  I’ve therefore summarized below the issues we want to address this year in Olympia.  Hopefully, you’ll find it helpful.

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A Balanced Agenda to Create Opportunity

As one of the largest employers in the state, we at Microsoft have long strived to support a balanced and bipartisan approach to public policy while using our technology and expertise to advance forward-looking initiatives.  Our focus has included the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, expanded computer science and STEM education, the new SR-520 bridge and last fall’s successful ST3 proposal, to name a few issues.  Recognizing the need for additional state resources, we also worked proactively during the last biennium with legislative leaders on a focused proposal that was adopted and increased tax payments for Microsoft and no other taxpayer in the state.

As the legislature starts its 2017 session, the issues in Washington state mirror many of the important topics throughout the nation.  While rapid advances in technology have spurred economic growth and opportunity, these gains have not been shared universally.  While the Puget Sound region boasts an abundance of opportunities for some, many others haven’t prospered.  And the economic expansion taking place in the Seattle region hasn’t taken hold in many communities across the state, driving a divide between affluent and struggling areas.  Across the state, the Washington Roundtable’s “Benchmarks for a Better Washington” demonstrate real progress in important areas, but also a lot of room for additional steps to address several indicators that define globally competitive states, including educating our youth.

We need a legislative agenda that will enhance economic growth, create new opportunities for more individuals to participate in that growth, and protect and improve the quality of life enjoyed by Washington residents.

We know that we don’t have all the answers.  We also appreciate that there are many thoughtful individuals, groups, and companies across the state that have good ideas.  In the coming weeks and months, we’re interested in listening to and learning from others.  As always in every legislative session, ideas will evolve and creative compromises will emerge.  But with all this said, we’re hopeful that this year’s session will include consideration for five public policy pillars that we believe are important for Next Generation Washington:

Education and Workforce Training

It’s obvious to even a casual observer that our lawmakers this year must address a final and very large set of hurdles associated with the Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision and funding for K-12 education.  We look forward to participating in this vital discussion.

We believe that one key to this conversation is a recognition of both the recent progress made by the state and the need to do more.  This decade we’ve seen the state’s high school graduation rate rise from 75.4 percent for the class of 2010 to 78.1 percent for the class of 2015.  This progress is a testament to the work not just of the students themselves, but also to many great teachers, strong schools, committed families, and dedicated state officials.  While we obviously can’t afford to spend too much time patting ourselves on the back as a state, we nonetheless should reflect on and thank all the talented people who continue to make progress possible.  They provide some of our best inspiration for the additional, big steps we’ll need to take in the coming months.

As we all come together to discuss the McCleary decision’s requirements, we obviously need to address some big questions.  We appreciate that there will be an extended discussion about both the amount of funding needed and where it will come from, including new revenue sources.  We look forward to learning more about the options being considered in Olympia and rolling up our sleeves and participating in a constructive way.  From our perspective, one key goal should be to ensure that we not only invest more money in K-12 education as a state, but that we do so in a manner that will improve outcomes for our students.  For instance, we urge policymakers to consider adopting a student-based budgeting model, as many other states have, to improve equity and outcomes.  Education, after all, is about our kids and their future.

But as important and big of a challenge as this is, we hope that the state’s leaders won’t stop there.

The state’s educational needs don’t end with high school diplomas.  A recent Boston Consulting Group report found that Washington will have 740,000 new job openings over the next five years, a number that exceeds the state’s historic growth rate and triples the national average for job growth over this period.  Fast-growing middle-wage and high-wage jobs will require post-secondary degrees, certificates, or other credentials.  Therefore, even as we invest in our K-12 system, we also need to address the learning needs of people after high school.  If we don’t, we’re likely to see open jobs persisting side-by-side with unemployment rates that are unacceptably high.

As part of a Next Generation Washington, we need to continue to innovate and support new post-high school educational steps.  Some of this should involve our public four-year institutions, such as expanding their capacity in high-demand degree programs and completing investments like the second Computer Science Engineering building at the University of Washington.  In the 2017 session, we’ll support the capital request for an additional $7.5 million for this building, to bring the total state funding for it in line with the original $40 million request.  Especially as the state continues to expand computer science and coding classes for K-12 students (which similarly should be a continuing priority this session), there will need to be expanded opportunities for high school graduates to advance their computer science learning in college in ways that will prepare them for the jobs our state is creating.

We also will support new learning and training opportunities for so-called middle-skill jobs.  There are many good jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree, but they do require learning beyond high school.  This area is ripe for innovation and investment, which this video we produced with the Markle Foundation illustrates.

One important way to expand opportunities for people to pursue this learning is to expand the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS) to create new opportunities at community colleges.  As a company, we’re big believers in WSOS, having donated $35 million to it, and I’ve chaired the WSOS Board.  Other companies, including Boeing, have been huge supporters as well.  It’s a trendsetter nationally in matching private scholarship donations with state funds.  In just five years since its inception, more than 5,500 Washington students have received grants of up to $22,500 to pursue degrees in science, technology, and health care fields.  The program is growing, and next year over 5,000 students with these scholarships will be enrolled across the state.  Of the 1,500 who have completed their degrees so far, 90 percent remain in the state.

Given the need to increase post-secondary credentials in high-demand fields, we believe this is the year to expand the WSOS model to support students who want to earn an associate’s degree or industry certificate at one of the state’s community and technical colleges.  With Washington’s 34 strong public community and technical colleges serving 386,000 students annually, this is an excellent opportunity to expand the statewide impact of the WSOS program.

We should also build on the state’s longstanding and successful track record in vocational apprenticeship programs by developing new youth apprenticeship opportunities, including by learning from successful programs in places such as Colorado and Switzerland.  Today, Washington’s registered apprenticeship programs are underway in virtually every region of the state, but not typically focused on youth or well integrated into high schools.  The average age of an apprentice in our state is 27.

Contrast that situation to the one in Switzerland, which has one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world.  In Switzerland, 70 percent of young people choose to pursue their education through a Vocational Education and Training (VET) apprenticeship pathway that starts in high school. The VET program offers 230 occupational apprenticeship pathways that incorporate standard high-school curricula, industry-based curricula, and on-the-job training that leads to a credential for immediate employment.

While we of course would need to adapt this type of program to our institutions and culture, we can learn a lot from recent efforts in Colorado to do just that.  That state is moving quickly to adapt the Swiss-style career-connected learning model, with $11 million in public, private and foundation funding to develop a comprehensive high school apprenticeship system.

This is why one of Microsoft’s priorities this session is to support Governor Inslee’s initiative for Career-Connected Learning, including his funding proposal for $12 million (half public/half private) to engage in-and-out-of-school youth in career-connected learning opportunities, including youth apprenticeships, across the K-12 and youth development sectors.  These efforts would initially focus on low income, rural youth, and youth from populations underrepresented in high-demand fields.  If adopted, Microsoft will help support and fund a strong public-private partnership to define targets, invest in high-impact models, and catalyze systemic changes.

Improvements to the Criminal Justice System

A change for Microsoft this session is our prioritization of potential improvements in the criminal justice system.  Across the country over the past year, we’ve come to appreciate more keenly the importance of criminal justice issues.  Diverse segments of our population can have widely divergent experiences in their interactions with law enforcement, and therefore widely divergent perceptions of the law enforcement community.  There is a need to address these issues, and an expanded conversation across our state is not just timely, but important.

We believe there is a common public interest in healthy community policing that both respects the vital role played by our public safety officers and ensures that people of all races and backgrounds have confidence in our law enforcement system.  The time to strengthen our state’s dialogue around these issues is not after a tragedy or crisis.  It is now, and often at a local level, so that we can avoid tragedies and crises in our hometowns.

As an employer of a large workforce comprised of deeply talented individuals of every race and from around the world, and with an eye towards the needs of their families, we hope to contribute to new and constructive initiatives in this space.  As we do so, we’re interested in helping to explore how data gathering and analysis and technology tools may improve the effectiveness of public safety officers in serving all segments of our community.  We believe there are important opportunities for the state, local law enforcement agencies, and public-interest groups to work collaboratively and closely together.  This might include, for example, (1) expansion of data collection, storage and analysis to track not only arrests and citations, but stops and investigations; (2) use of data analysis to define best practices and design state-of-the-art police training programs; (3) use of new technological tools like HoloLens in situational training such as de-escalation techniques; and (4) cross-agency data collaboration to allow real-time sharing that improves the incident response effectiveness.  We know this is just a start.  If the state can help promote this type of dialogue, many good people will bring new ideas to the table.

We also believe that Washington state should strive to create a national model for a criminal justice system that not only provides strong public safety protections but also creates new opportunities for offenders to lead more productive lives upon release.  To contribute to this effort, we at Microsoft will work with lawmakers to evaluate the potential benefits of offering digital literacy, productivity tools and coding training to some inmates in the corrections system setting.  And we’re prepared to explore ways that our philanthropic resources can contribute as well.

Equal Pay in the Workplace

 Washington voters have signaled their interest in ensuring that the workplace provides meaningful opportunities for everyone.  Meanwhile, over the last several sessions, some lawmakers have proposed legislation to mandate equal pay.  In general, their proposals have often met with less than support from the business community.

We want to work with lawmakers and the business community to pursue strong compromise proposals on equal pay and paid family leave that will provide important protections and predictability to employees and employers alike.  We believe the time has come to find a path that can meet the needs of stakeholders across the economy, and we hope that 2017 can bring a breakthrough in this space.

A Cascadia Innovation Corridor

The Seattle and Vancouver regions’ synergies in research, innovation, and technology development represent a game-changing opportunity to create an innovation corridor that will generate job opportunities and prosperity well beyond what our two cities can achieve separately.  Microsoft is committed to supporting several important efforts to help strengthen this corridor.

We hope that one big piece of this will include a strengthening of our transportation systems across the border.  There are multiple ways we can address this.

One such opportunity is to build on the fact that, in March 2015, the United States and Canada reached an agreement to expand preclearance to passenger rail facilities as part of the Beyond the Border Agreement.  For the first time, rail preclearance facilities in Canada will allow travelers to pass through U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspections prior to traveling, expediting their arrival in the U.S. while also protecting national security.  Microsoft was pleased to see Congress in December enact H.R. 4657, the Promoting Travel, Commerce and national Security Act of 2016, as a necessary initial step toward full implementation of the Agreement.  Now we can build on this further.

As an additional step to enhance connections, we also believe it’s important to continue to investigate the feasibility of air service between Lake Washington or Lake Union and Vancouver’s inner Harbor.  Initial conversations with air operators indicate that doing so would require organization of a group of businesses to provide a base level of passengers in the initial phase.  At Microsoft, we’re prepared to support this effort and help make it a success.  Additionally, some financial hurdles exist with Canadian Customs that would have to be overcome to make the service financially viable.  There may be opportunities to align these issues and address the challenges concurrently.

Finally, it makes sense in the transportation space to explore high speed rail (HSR) between Seattle and Vancouver.  The governor’s proposed transportation budget provides $1 million to evaluate the feasibility of HSR in Washington state, including potential connections to Vancouver and Portland.  We support this proposed budget request.

Of course, it’s important to promote opportunities for people not just to travel across the U.S.-Canadian border, but for our two regions to work more closely together in ways that will promote broad economic growth.  We believe there are a variety of new and important opportunities to advance this, including by promoting more collaborative work by our regions’ great research universities and by our renowned cancer research institutions Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the BC Cancer Agency.  We look forward to working with Washington state, the province of British Columbia, and others this year to help advance this.

A Cloud for Global Good

The cloud innovations coming from local companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Zillow and Tableau, among many others, are driving the transformation of businesses and industries around the world.  They are helping our customers create new capabilities, connect with their own customers in deeper ways, solve problems, gain insights, and access new markets.  Our region is leading the world in developing cloud technology, and we should be a leader in unleashing its benefits for our citizens.  We are committed to building a cloud that is trusted, responsible, and inclusive, promising economic and social benefits for both urban and rural communities.

We authored a Cloud for Global Good policy roadmap to help lawmakers and policy influencers navigate the societal implications of technology to ensure that the cloud benefits everyone, not just the fortunate few.  One of the important cloud computing-related opportunities in Washington is the deployment of broadband services to rural areas through public-private partnerships.  Telecom companies and port districts are interested in new legislation to facilitate broadband deployment in rural area through such partnerships.

Currently, such arrangements are not authorized under state law.  Government entities may not offer telecom or broadband services on the retail level; they may only offer these services on a wholesale basis with ISP’s offering the retail service to consumers.  Although these latter arrangements exist in a few areas in the state (including Grant County and Tacoma), they are largely unprofitable and require some form of subsidy from the sponsoring utility.

Legislation to extend new authority to public ports as an economic development tool is being promoted by the Washington Public Ports Association and by CenturyLink. We believe it’s important to consider this opportunity, including the use of new and less expensive broadband technologies that we are helping to develop, such as TV White Spaces.

Microsoft is beginning the technical work on a project to provide TV White Spaces broadband internet access to a few thousand residential customers in Lincoln County, Washington, located in the rural, eastern part of the state.  Our goal is not to enter the connectivity business, but to develop, test, and prove out the technologies that can help bring broadband to communities that don’t have it today.  We believe that broadband deployment is critical for creating additional economic opportunities in rural areas and reducing the divisions between the Central Puget Sound and the rest of the state.  Hence this too should be an important legislative priority.

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As all of this reflects, 2017 can be a busy and important year for Washington state.  We will need leadership, constructive conversation, and ultimately creative compromises to make this potential a reality.  We believe it’s a year for the state to aim high, and for all of us across the business community and the private sector to help make this year a success.  As a company, Microsoft is committed to doing its part.

About the Author

President and Chief Legal Officer

Brad Smith is Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer. Smith plays a key role in representing the company externally and in leading the company’s work on a number of critical issues including privacy, security, accessibility, environmental sustainability and digital inclusion, among others.