Next Generation Washington: spring 2018 update

 |   Brad Smith - President

Photo of a bright red seaplane on the water next to a dock

In keeping with our commitment to communicate Microsoft’s priorities on key issues affecting our state, I want to share our perspective on this year’s session of the Washington State Legislature and the related state decisions that have followed. It was a short and productive session this year, and there have been some additional steps forward in the weeks that followed. I’ve organized the observations below along the major pillars of what we have dubbed the Next Generation Washington agenda, a balanced series of policy goals that we believe are critical for the future economic and social health of our state and everyone who lives here.

Strengthening education and workforce development

In addition to taking another important step to comply with the Supreme Court’s McCleary K-12 funding rulings, the Legislature also allocated $12.5 million in the capital budget to help build out school infrastructure, acquire specialized lab and other equipment, and deliver the tools teachers and students need to develop leading-edge STEM skills.  These funds will flow through Washington STEM, an extremely effective statewide network of business and education professionals which Microsoft helped co-found and stills supports financially.

These STEM investments are related to the Legislature’s emerging focus on career pathways and the importance of post-secondary credentials in preparing students to fill the jobs being created by Washington employers.  As we’ve seen in numerous studies, more and more of the best jobs – those providing a wage that will support a family and offering better upward mobility – will require some form of education or training beyond high school.

In February, the Governor’s Career Connect Washington task force, which I co-chaired with MacDonald-Miller’s Perry England, made recommendations that, if adopted, will help our state lead the nation in better preparing young people for the full range of jobs being created by state employers. Former Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce president Maud Daudon has signed on to coordinate this work for the state, and I’m excited about the opportunities for major progress on this issue leading up to and during the 2019 session.

Lawmakers also took action in the higher education arena, including appropriating $3 million to fund additional students in the University of Washington’s world-class computer science and engineering program.  Having worked with other private-sector donors to help raise $70 million to fund the construction of the Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering on the UW campus, it’s rewarding to see the state providing adequate funding to fill that amazing new facility with students.  Thanks to everyone who has helped make that happen.

The Legislature expanded the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS) by appropriating another $4 million in state funds to match the growing number of private donations to the fund, reflecting the unique public-private partnership that has made WSOS so effective.  But what may become even more meaningful was the adoption of legislation to allow WSOS to provide scholarships to students who want to pursue an associate’s degree or industry certification at one of the state’s 34 community and technical colleges.

This move reflects the growing realization of the importance of post-secondary credentials and that these credentials take many forms beyond a traditional college degree, including apprenticeships, industry certificates and specialized training.  WSOS, which awards nearly three-quarters of its scholarships to students who are the first in their families to attend college, can play a pivotal role in removing some financial barriers for students looking to obtain these credentials.

Looking forward, our hope is that the 2019 session will focus on career pathways, post-secondary credentials, the health of our higher education network and preparing kids for the jobs that exist across our growing state economy.

One of these fields is computer science, which is foundational to many digital jobs. Yet too many of our students lack access to coding and other computer science education opportunities.  In 2019, we encourage legislators to increase computer science offerings from the earliest grades to our college campuses.

It will also mean addressing financial support for higher education in Washington.  Lawmakers have made some steps in this direction, including providing enough funding to allow state colleges and universities to freeze or reduce tuition levels.  But the fact is that the impact of the recession and the required focus on K-12 funding has put higher education in the back seat for at least a decade.  With the state’s economy producing record revenue growth, it’s time to increase our investments in these institutions that play such a pivotal role in creating long-term opportunities for individuals and communities across the state.

Addressing climate change

Heading into the 2018 legislative session, we had high hopes that lawmakers would reach agreement on one of the most important issues of our time:  climate change.

Thoughtful and balanced legislation was developed.  It put a modest price on carbon emissions, which would escalate over time as our economy adjusted to this additional cost.  It invested the proceeds of this new tax in programs designed to reduce carbon emissions and address the already present consequences of climate change, and it established metrics for performance and accountability.  It protected both employment sectors that might be put at a serious competitive disadvantage by the new tax, as well as low-income families that would be negatively affected.  Governor Inslee and legislative leaders worked with stakeholders from across the spectrum to develop this compromise.  Though it passed several major milestones, the bill ultimately failed to garner sufficient support for passage.

This was unfortunate, as we believe the Legislature is the best venue for creating a balanced approach to meet the needs of all Washingtonians. We are now evaluating next steps, including a carbon tax initiative that is likely to be on this fall’s ballot.

Closing the broadband gap in rural Washington

Cloud computing and artificial intelligence are reshaping the economy and creating new opportunities for people everywhere. But participating in this new digital economy requires access to high-speed broadband communications, which many rural communities lack.  This puts the students, families and businesses in these communities at a tremendous disadvantage compared to those living in more urban and suburban areas with high-speed connectivity.

That’s why we’re so pleased that the Legislature appropriated $10 million for the Community Economic Revitalization Board to provide grants to support the expansion of rural broadband.

For our part, Microsoft also will invest its own funds to address this issue. Our Airband initiative will bring broadband connectivity to 2 million people in rural America by 2022.  Washington is one of 13 states we will focus on this year.  Our private sector investment, coupled with the public-sector grants provided in the budget, will provide synergies that drive more meaningful progress in closing the broadband gap than either of us could achieve on our own.

Moving forward, we hope the Legislature will continue to pursue additional investments in rural broadband and reestablish a Rural Broadband Office to ensure the development and execution of a statewide strategy to deliver high-quality broadband access to unserved and underserved communities.

Advancing the Cascadia Corridor

Public- and private-sector leaders, both here in Washington and north of the border in British Columbia, are making the Cascadia Innovation Corridor a reality through new investments, programs and partnerships.

We’ve seen this as new education and research partnerships, venture capital strategies and transportation linkages, such as seaplane service from downtown Seattle to downtown Vancouver, emerge.

We applaud the Legislature’s $750,000 investment in the supplemental transportation budget and the British Columbia government’s contribution of C$300,000 to the continued study of the feasibility of constructing a high-speed rail connection between the two cities. In a reflection of Microsoft’s commitment to this important work, we also have contributed $300,000 to this additional feasibility assessment.

According to an economic impact study funded by Microsoft and the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council of the AFL-CIO, a high-speed rail line would help create another 145,000 jobs in the Puget Sound region, a 4 percent increase over what Seattle and Vancouver can expect without the service. What’s more, thousands of these new job opportunities would be spread between Bellingham and Everett, Tacoma and Olympia, and all along the rail corridor.

Shrinking the distance between Vancouver, Seattle and potentially Portland through more efficient travel connections is the sort of forward-looking investment that could be a game changer for generations to come, and lawmakers are wise to make relatively modest investments today to fully understand the potential.

Embracing a motto for the future

It was a busy session and legislators worked hard to represent their constituents. We all owe them our thanks.

As we head into the summer, I hope everyone reading this blog will support the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games taking place in Seattle this July.  The games will be one of the largest sporting events of the year, with 4,000 athletes and coaches from across the country competing in 14 sports. They include many remarkable athletes and their families, and it will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.

Microsoft is honored to be the presenting sponsor of the games, and I’m thrilled to serve as the honorary chair.  Special Olympics is an incredible international organization, founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, that brings people with and without developmental disabilities together through sports, health, school and youth engagement to foster acceptance and inclusion.  In this regard, the mission of Special Olympics aligns perfectly with the mission of Microsoft to bring opportunity to everyone around the world.

The Special Olympics athlete’s motto is to “Let me win; but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”  I cannot imagine a more powerful or appropriate statement about how our region and our state should come together not only to support this great cause, but also to jointly tackle the task of securing our collective future.

As always, thanks for reading Microsoft’s perspective on the issues, and please feel free to share your views on our ideas.

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