Next Generation Washington: Our priorities for 2019

 |   Brad Smith - President

Illustration of Washington state capitol

The Washington State Legislature recently began its 2019 session. In keeping with Microsoft tradition, I’d like to share with you our legislative priorities. What follows are a few of the issues at the top of our agenda this year.

Ensuring a healthy community: the need for affordable housing in the Puget Sound region
Growth in the Puget Sound region has created new challenges and, chief among them, is a now-critical need to increase the supply of affordable housing. To help address the affordable housing crisis in our community, Microsoft recently announced a commitment of $500 million in the Puget Sound region.  Our investments will take the form of funds to support the creation of low- and middle-income housing, as well as grants to homelessness-related initiatives.

This session, we also ask lawmakers to join us by renewing and expanding the state’s commitment to this important issue. We are urging legislators to continue making direct public investments in affordable housing by appropriating $200 million in the 2019-21 capital budget to the Housing Trust Fund to expand increase development of housing for low-income individuals and families. Although this figure represents a significant increase from the $110 million included in recent budget cycles, we believe it is appropriate given the scale of the problem at hand.

Beyond direct public investment, we are requesting that lawmakers enact policies that encourage private development of affordable housing. Condominium liability reforms, for example, would eliminate barriers and stimulate new development of affordable housing units for the middle-income market. Allowing cities to extend the multifamily tax exemption beyond its existing 12-year limit is another idea we are advocating. Finally, we encourage lawmakers to provide incentives for local communities to reduce zoning and permitting hurdles to allow increased production of other forms of affordable housing in their communities, especially near transit hubs.

The bottom line: We are committed to efforts that increase the availability of affordable housing and provide opportunities for a diverse range of citizens to live in the communities in which they work.

Closing the rural broadband gap
In Washington, about one in 10 residents in rural communities lack broadband communications access. These figures reflect a nationwide problem: Nearly 20 million Americans in rural areas lack access to a service that has become as fundamental as electricity.

Here and elsewhere, this broadband gap constrains the ability of many rural residents to fully participate in the digital economy and the opportunities it provides. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Microsoft is investing heavily in broadband development through our Airband Initiative, which focuses on bringing broadband coverage to rural Americans through commercial partnerships and investment in digital skills training for people in the newly connected communities. Proceeds from Airband connectivity projects are reinvested into the program to expand broadband to more rural areas. Rural Washington is a key focus area for Airband, and we recently announced important partnerships with providers like Native Networks and Declaration Networks that will bring broadband to more rural Washingtonians.

As for the public side of this public-private partnership, we encourage the Legislature to build on the $10 million it appropriated last year to support broadband development and deployment in rural areas by creating a State Broadband Office and investing $25 million in a competitive grant program to support additional broadband deployment in underserved areas.

The bottom line: We believe the public and private sectors, working together, can eliminate the rural broadband gap in our state within the next four years.

Protection of data and personal privacy
Today, we run our businesses, connect with friends and family, and live our lives in a digital world. Now, more than ever before, there is an urgent need to modernize privacy laws. We know it, and the public knows it.

At a time when the public’s growing concern with maintaining individual privacy threatens to undermine trust in technology and stifle the promise and progress it can bring, lawmakers have a duty to act decisively.

Microsoft has been advocating for new federal privacy laws since 2005, but progress at the federal level remains stalled. But privacy legislation is starting to sweep across the country, with California leading the nation last year with a major new privacy law that will protect that state’s consumers who use technology and other services. That state’s approach builds on important developments in other countries, including across Europe. It’s important for Washington state to be a leader in this space as well, and this legislative session provides an opportunity for it to do so.

Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle) has introduced important legislation that represents the right approach to modernizing state law. And Rep. Shelley Kloba (D-Kirkland) has introduced the companion bill in the House. Sen. Carlyle’s bill builds on the best aspects of approaches elsewhere, and we endorse it. As the legislation moves forward, it will be important for stakeholders to come together to work through important details, including provisions that exempt small businesses that impact fewer consumers.

The bottom line: At Microsoft, we believe privacy is a fundamental human right, and we support efforts by lawmakers in Olympia to protect the data and privacy of Washington consumers in a manner that allows innovation to continue and is also sensitive to the needs of the state’s small businesses.

A principled approach to facial recognition technology
While the proliferation of facial recognition has created many new and positive benefits around the world, we believe that it is time for a clear-eyed look at the risks and potential for abuse of this growing technology. Three simple steps to put appropriate limits on use will address the potential for bias or discrimination in facial recognition systems, intrusions into privacy and the potential for use of mass surveillance to encroach on democratic freedoms.

We believe it’s especially important to empower customers and consumers alike by ensuring that companies that participate in the facial recognition market enable academics and third parties to test their services. There is no more reason for a company in the facial recognition market to object to third-party testing than there is reason for an automobile company to object to testing the airbags in a new car. The public deserves the transparency needed to evaluate whether these services are error-prone and biased in their results.

We look forward to working with state lawmakers on these issues.

The bottom line: By putting guardrails around the use of this maturing technology, Washington lawmakers have an opportunity to blaze a trail that can serve as a model for effective privacy legislation nationwide.

Investment in high-speed rail
Another initiative that will create unprecedented economic opportunities for Washington residents for generations to come is the development of a high-speed rail line linking Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.

Leaders in these communities are working collaboratively to formalize the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, a strategy to drive additional job growth and better position our area as a global center of innovation and commerce.

High-speed rail could reduce the travel time between Seattle and Vancouver to a little over an hour. Early feasibility studies have confirmed this service could be operated cost-effectively. It’s now time to move from the planning stage to the implementation phase. Microsoft is supporting the governor’s $3 million budget proviso to establish a formal partnership between Washington, Oregon and British Columbia to chart a path forward to develop and operate high-speed rail service within Cascadia corridor.

The bottom line: The Cascadia Innovation Corridor will be a game-changer. We must act now to develop the legal and financial structures to move forward.

New opportunities for Washington citizens
We support efforts to increase economic opportunities and enhance quality of life for the people of Washington. Beyond these priorities, Microsoft will continue to support other public policies and investments that create new opportunities for Washington citizens, including expanding computer science education, career-connected learning opportunities and programs that boost postsecondary credential attainment.

We’re proud that our company and more than 50,000 of our employees call Washington home, and we are honored to have this opportunity to share our ideas about how to make it an even greater place to live and work.

We look forward to working with lawmakers and other stakeholders, and we welcome your thoughts on our agenda for 2019.

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