It’s a testament to the resiliency of our democracy that even in the midst of a global pandemic, with its restrictions on in-person meetings, our state lawmakers have found a way to conduct their business and still allow for meaningful public participation and transparency of their deliberations.
In keeping with that commitment to transparency, since 2017, we have shared Microsoft’s legislative priorities for the annual session of the Washington State Legislature. While continuing that practice below, we also recognize that this year will be different in many ways.
Everyone at Microsoft salutes the tireless efforts of state and local government officials, public health experts, educators and social service providers in responding to Covid-19. We appreciate Governor Inslee’s leadership and support the necessary, science-based actions taken to limit the spread of the virus. We also applaud the additional measures the Governor announced in December to increase state support for individuals and families most affected by those economic restrictions.
Despite these actions, Covid-19 remains an unpredictable, persistent and serious threat to our families, schools and businesses. Effectively responding to this threat and ensuring the physical, emotional and economic health of our communities will require the Governor, Legislature, business community, labor, social service agencies, educators and other stakeholders to come together even more closely than ever before, work collaboratively and communicate clearly with the public.
Covid-19 response priorities include increasing testing and contact tracing efforts, providing community-based information on virus tracking and ensuring that vaccines are distributed safely and efficiently, with priority placed on inoculating vulnerable populations and essential workers including educators. .
Microsoft and many other businesses have been working closely with state and local officials to lend support to the vaccine distribution efforts now underway. We are proud to be a part of this effort and hope that the combined actions of all the leaders in the State of Washington can hasten vaccine distribution and the resulting reopening of the state’s schools and economy that extensive inoculation will allow.
To that end, Microsoft recently agreed to provide technical support to enable effective vaccine distribution and administration. We are also working with several local hospitals to stand up a large vaccination site on our Redmond campus for all members of the community who are eligible per the prioritization guidelines set forth by the Washington State Department of Health. By taking advantage of the fact that most of our employees are not presently on campus, we can help relieve one additional potential pressure point on local health care facilities. As part of this effort, we have committed to covering all the costs of this vaccination site, including staffing, supplier and vaccine administration costs, and will welcome uninsured Washingtonians among others in the community.
Beyond these efforts to respond to the virus itself, more assistance, even beyond the supports announced in December, will be needed for low-income Washingtonians and for small businesses struggling with the economic disruptions caused by the pandemic.
Additionally, we must do everything we can to reopen schools as soon as safely possible. Across the state, far too many students are not progressing towards their academic and social goals, and far too many parents are struggling to maintain their jobs while simultaneously caring for their children.
As we plan and execute our responses to the virus, we must also recognize that it has impacted people of color more adversely, which has in turn exacerbated long-standing inequities. That’s why Microsoft was a founding member of Washington Employers for Racial Equity (WERE), a private sector initiative spearheaded by Challenge Seattle and the Washington Roundtable to achieve equity and opportunity for all Washingtonians.
Our WERE efforts are the latest step in the company’s efforts to support equity. Since 2017, the Microsoft Justice Reform Initiative has provided financial, technological and other resources to state and local government and non-profit organizations working to advance racial equity in the justice system through training, community engagement and data gathering, sharing and analysis. We will continue and expand these efforts over the next five years.
Finally, we should continue making critical investments needed to ensure our region is best positioned for economic recovery. As one example, we urge the State of Washington, King County and the City of Seattle to provide the necessary bridge loans to keep the Washington State Convention Center expansion on track for its 2022 opening.
But even as we work together to confront these great public health and economic challenges, we urge lawmakers to also take bold action on issues that will keep our state moving in the right direction over the longer term.
Enacting strong data privacy legislation to protect Washington consumers has been one of our top priorities over the last few years. The pandemic, which has spurred the rise of contract tracing apps and increased sharing of health information, has only made that need more pressing.
We support the continued work being done by Senator Carlyle to update last year’s legislation to recognize these new requirements. These provisions further strengthen a bill that is one of the strongest globally and will provide Washington residents with robust consumer privacy protections.
After extensive deliberations on this bill in recent sessions, the last significant issue to be resolved is determining the appropriate enforcement mechanism. Based on what we have seen in other jurisdictions, Microsoft remains confident that the best way to protect Washington consumers is to create a robust enforcement mechanism within the Attorney General’s consumer protection division. The AG’s office is responsive to the public and has a long history of protecting consumer rights in Washington. We were pleased to hear the Attorney General’s office testify that the bill provides sufficient enforcement tools to their office.
Even before the pandemic placed greater economic pressures on many members of our community, housing affordability was a major challenge in our state, especially in the fast-growing Central Puget Sound region. Because we believe that diversity strengthens our community, Microsoft continues to support the creation and preservation of affordable housing options for those of all income levels.
We encourage continued direct public investment through the Housing Trust Fund to help create more housing opportunities. But we also encourage lawmakers to enact public policies that enable and even encourage private development of housing that is affordable for low- and middle-income individuals and families. Extension and expansion of the existing Multi-Family Tax Exemption is one important step that would help reduce the cost and increase the supply of housing, and we hope that other creative ideas will emerge. It would also be helpful if lawmakers would clarify that local governments can use existing lodging taxes to not only construct new dwellings, but also to acquire existing ones, to provide shelter and services for those experiencing homelessness. Hopefully, other creative ideas will emerge as well.
The pandemic has turned the expansion of high-speed internet connectivity from an important state priority into a critical, life-enabling necessity. Today, more than ever before, Washingtonians rely on broadband internet connections for distance learning, telehealth care and to do their work remotely. In many ways, broadband is the electricity of the 21st century – a resource that allows people to engage in modern society.
Unfortunately, many of those living in rural areas of our state remain at a severe disadvantage due to a lack of access to broadband; others in urban areas still cannot afford to access the broadband available in their locations. The state must take aggressive steps to accelerate its investments in this critical infrastructure and ensure that all Washingtonians can connect with activities and opportunities in daily life.
Washington’s educational institutions have been impacted dramatically by the pandemic. Administrators, teachers, students and parents all have been forced to adjust to new, remote learning models. The technical and instructional challenges in doing so have been immense, and we salute the hard work that has gone into schools’ responses to date.
We believe the most important focus for education must remain the development of a path to the safe reopening of in-person instruction. That’s why we testified in support of SB 5037 sponsored by Senators Braun and Mullet codifying the circumstances under which schools will offer in-person education.
As we reopen schools, however, we should redouble our efforts to ensure that Washington’s K-12 and higher education systems are appropriately focused and resourced on preparing students for job opportunities and societal challenges they will face in the years ahead. This means maintaining the state’s commitment to current high school graduation pathways; protecting investments in financial aid, student support and services that help increase credential attainment, especially among underserved populations; and continuing to grow student access and support for high-quality career-connected learning opportunities.
The Cascadia Corridor
Reinvigorating our regional and state economies will require pursuing every opportunity to stimulate innovation and create new economic opportunities. Even before the pandemic, momentum was building to increase collaboration along the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, which runs from British Columbia through Washington and on to Oregon. This corridor, and the opportunities it presents, will only grow in importance as we work to recover and rebound from Covid-19.
Making the most of this potential will require building stronger ties among the business, government and research organizations in the three jurisdictions. This in turn depends on reducing the effective distance between Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, the region’s major economic hubs. Previous analysis has shown that high-speed rail is the best strategy for reducing travel times between these cities, and we urge lawmakers to appropriate the necessary funding to support continued system planning. Necessary next steps include creating a more formal alliance between Washington, Oregon and British Columbia to complete pre-environmental reviews, engage local communities and ready the project to pursue federal investments.
High-speed rail is the sort of forward-looking public infrastructure that can be a gamechanger for generations. Continued investment to keep the project moving forward today will pay many future dividends.
Beyond high-speed rail, other investments in Washington’s transportation infrastructure are vital for the functioning of our economy and health of our community. While the economic constraints imposed by the pandemic have reduced travel volumes around the state, this reduction won’t last forever and the need for these investments has not gone away. In fact, the importance of improving safety on our roadways, expanding transit options and making critical connections will grow as the virus is increasingly contained and our economy begins to recover.
Passage of a comprehensive transportation funding package has several advantages. In the immediate term, it will put more people back to work. Over the longer haul, it will improve the safety and efficiency of our bridges, roadways and transit systems for years to come. That’s why we support the efforts of Senator Hobbs and Representative Fey to advance a transportation funding package this session.
The package should include continuing funding for previously approved and funded projects, including those in the Connecting Washington plan, which now lack sufficient funding due to reduced tolling and fuel tax revenues during the pandemic. One local priority would be construction of a new off-ramp to 124th from westbound SR-520, alleviating congestion and backups around what is currently one of the most congested and unsafe highway interchanges in the state, the junction of SR-520 and I-405. Another would be funding to increase traffic flow and enhance pedestrian and bicycle safety at SR-520 and 148th Avenue NE in Redmond. This improvement is needed to accommodate projected growth and improve linkages to light rail service, which will enhance the desirability of transportation-oriented development when it reaches Redmond in 2023.
2020 was a year of unexpected and unprecedented challenges for government, employers and individuals. But the near-term challenges are far from over, and Washington’s long-term success depends on our collective ability to enact innovative policies and make smart investments for the future.
As always, we welcome your thoughts.