Next Generation Washington: Our priorities for 2020

Front of the Washington state capitol building

As we’ve done in recent years, I’d like to share what we’re focused on for Washington State’s current legislative session, as well as share our reaction to one key November 2019 election result. As we’ve said in the past, we believe in the transparency that comes from publishing a preview of the positions we’ll be sharing with legislators as they work in Olympia.

As a company, Microsoft is committed to furthering policies that create new jobs, opportunities and innovations here in Washington State. With more than 50,000 Microsoft employees and their families calling Washington home, these goals and the outcome of the decisions made today aren’t abstract – they’re personal.

As we embark on a new year, we are more committed than ever to two chief objectives: 1. Ensuring Microsoft’s success contributes to the overall success of the state; and 2. Engaging with elected officials and our neighbors to find ways in which we can help improve the quality of life for everyone who lives or works here.

From the 2019 Election to the 2020 Legislative Session

  1. I-976
  2. Affordable housing
  3. Data privacy
  4. Facial recognition
  5. Broadband access
  6. Cascadia Innovation Corridor – High-speed rail

Looking through the joint lenses of economic opportunity and quality of life, we were disappointed in the passage of Initiative 976, which will eliminate billions of dollars of much-needed funding for major transportation projects, city-level street maintenance, transit services, ferries and state patrol services over the coming years. Microsoft was a major supporter of the diverse business-labor-environmental coalition that opposed this measure, and we continue to believe that investments in transportation infrastructure are critical for the vitality of our state in the years ahead.

What’s next: While I-976 clearly resonated with voters, we believe it offered a false promise, namely that important transportation and transit service funding could be slashed without impacting the quality of life for Washingtonians. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be engaging with the public entities that will have to further prioritize their expenditures as a result of the new shortfall created by I-976. Our hope is these conversations will be forward-looking and productive and will help identify strategies to keep our state moving forward.

Turning now from the ballot to the halls of Olympia, I’d like to share a few thoughts on where we stand on the key issues that the legislature will be tackling in its upcoming 2020 session.

We believe a lack of affordable housing presents a real barrier to many who are looking to become full participants in their communities. Today, this housing shortage is reaching crisis point in a number of cities across Washington. It’s the reason why, in January 2019, Microsoft announced a $500 million commitment to support the creation of additional affordable housing options. Earlier this month, we announced an additional $250 million commitment to affordable housing in the form of a line of credit to the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, bringing Microsoft’s total commitment to $750 million. This additional capital will create an estimated 3,000 additional units of much-needed affordable housing.

We also announced $55 million in investments and grants towards our original $500 million commitment. This brings our total to $380 million allocated over the past year to support the preservation or creation of over 6,500 affordable housing units in the greater Seattle area.

We were gratified to see the legislature similarly increase the state’s commitment to the Housing Trust Fund substantially, to $175 million for the 2019-21 biennium. But we must also work together to enact public policies that will build on the positive impact of these and other investments. Public and philanthropic funding alone will not solve the problem.

Last year, lawmakers enacted HB 1923, providing incentives for municipalities to adopt policies that encourage increasing local housing stocks.  We must do more of this, by pursuing a broad range of actions at all levels of government to enable and encourage development of more housing across the spectrum of affordability, but particularly for middle-income residents. One important tool to support this goal would be an extension of the Multiple Family Tax Exemption, which would maintain and expand the existing stock of affordable middle-market housing options.

What’s next: Microsoft will continue to work collaboratively with others in both the public and private sectors to support the creation of a larger supply of affordable housing.

While our state’s housing affordability crisis is the direct result of local economic trends, the need for Washingtonians to enjoy greater privacy protections for their personal data is a direct result of global economic and technology trends.

We have long advocated for state legislators to enact a data privacy law to protect Washington State consumers. As Carol Ann Browne and I wrote in our recent book, Tools and Weapons, at Microsoft we view personal privacy as a fundamental human right. We acknowledge that Microsoft and other tech firms have a responsibility to own the consequences of the technologies we create. We also recognize that we can’t do it alone. We need government action to provide common guardrails across the industry.

Since the 2019 legislative session, legislative leaders have been working on new data privacy legislation for consideration in the upcoming legislature. We believe that it’s important for Washington to enact strong data privacy protections, not only for the benefit of all state residents, but also to demonstrate our state’s leadership on what we believe will be one of the defining issues of our generation.

For our part, because of our commitment to privacy, Microsoft is taking an important step on the self-regulation front. We will voluntarily extend the core rights given to California residents by the California Consumer Privacy Act to our customers nationwide.

What’s next: We will continue to work with interest groups including consumer advocacy groups, to encourage legislators to bring robust privacy protections for consumers within state law.

A related issue is the need to begin addressing the responsible use of facial recognition technology. This technology has many positive potential applications and allowing its continued use will allow others to emerge.  However, we need to preserve those benefits while simultaneously imposing rigorous regulations to restrict bias, discrimination and uses that could impinge on our democratic freedoms.

What’s next: This is another critically important issue on which Washington state could serve as a model for the rest of the nation by enacting a thoughtful regulatory framework. To that end, we will continue to work with legislative leaders and all interested stakeholders in pursuing facial recognition legislation, either within the context of a broader privacy bill or as a separate measure.

Another challenge facing the digital economy is that not every community has the ability to take full advantage of the opportunities that the digital economy provides. Too many rural communities in our state and across the country don’t have access to the latest broadband communications.

The legislature took a major step in addressing this problem in our state by creating a new State Broadband Office and appropriating $21.5 million to offer grants and loans to spur deployment of broadband in underserved areas. We applaud both their commitment to this effort and their announced intention to invest another $80 million in the coming years.

What’s next: At Microsoft, we share lawmakers’ commitment to increasing access to broadband. Through our AirBand initiative, we will continue to work with local partners on targeted investments to bring the power of artificial intelligence and cloud computing to more Washington businesses, farms and families. And we will continue to work with the new State Broadband Office to identify other ways in which we can help.

But, while broadband communications can facilitate new relationships, sometimes face-to-face interactions are needed to build on those relationships. And that’s where the Cascadia Innovation Corridor comes in.

We continue to believe Seattle, Portland and Vancouver can accomplish more by collaborating than they can by working independently. Such collaboration will strengthen our position as North America’s gateway to Asia and further establish the region as a global center of innovation and trade.

As discussed at a recent major high-speed rail conference held on our Redmond campus, high-speed rail would unlock stronger partnerships between businesses, educational and research institutions, non-profits and governments in these three markets. But that’s just the beginning. Shrinking the time it takes to travel between these hubs will help accommodate the tremendous growth that has occurred throughout the Cascadia corridor, reduce freeway and arterial congestion, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As additional communities are efficiently linked to major employment centers, employees would enjoy increased access to more affordable housing choices and employers could draw from a broader pool of potential employees.

Initial feasibility studies confirm the economic viability of the proposed high-speed rail system. But there are financing and governance questions that need to be addressed in order for the project to move forward. And that’s why it’s so important to continue the momentum that is building for this system.

What’s next: We will collaborate with the other funding partners in the current development work to identify funding, financing and governance strategies that will allow this project to become a reality. With these strategies identified, legislative champions will have the framework necessary to enact legislation in 2021 that authorizes Washington to help create a multi-jurisdictional authority to begin tackling these challenges.

These are, of course, just a few of the issues lawmakers will be tackling in the coming weeks. But they are issues of great importance to our business, our employees, our community and our future. We look forward to engaging constructively and transparently on these issues and others.

As always, we are eager to get to work finding solutions to the challenges ahead and welcome your feedback and ideas.

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