The 2021 session of the Washington State Legislature will undoubtedly be remembered for its business being conducted virtually, with few lawmakers and staff in attendance at the capitol campus and the remainder participating in committee and floor activities remotely. Even with the unique setup, the more important long-term impacts will be the result not of how decisions were made, but because of what those decisions were.
In January, I shared Microsoft’s priorities for the session. With the session having wrapped up at the end of April, we can share our perspective on what was accomplished and what remains to be addressed.
We saw notable progress in several key areas: Covid-19 response and recovery; promoting racial equity; combating climate change; reforming the criminal justice system; creating affordable housing; and expanding educational opportunities. We also saw the state’s capabilities in cyber resilience enhanced, funds contributed to expanding broadband coverage and voting rights restored for thousands of Washingtonians.
Despite this progress, we recognize that more work can be done to protect an individual’s personal data through privacy laws, ensure Washington continues to be economically competitive for data center operations and the jobs and tax revenues they bring to the state and ensure the sustainability of the state budget moving forward, among other areas. Finally, we think it is critically important that the Legislature adopt a transportation revenue package soon to support our state’s continued recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and improve the safety and efficiency of the state’s transportation infrastructure. It was unfortunate that this work was not completed this session; it needs to be addressed in the interim.
Responding to Covid-19
As legislators prepared for this session, it was clear that the first priority would be responding to the ongoing pandemic and its impact on public health and our state’s economy. Even with thousands more Washingtonians being vaccinated by the day, we continue to see, and must respond to, the long-term effects on our families, schools, businesses and communities.
The Legislature made important investments to address these effects, including the distribution of billions in federal stimulus dollars to provide unemployment and small business support, enhance childcare and education programs, provide housing assistance and expand public health outreach. These targeted investments will bring relief to people across our state.
Microsoft remains committed to community efforts to respond to Covid-19. In addition to continuing to provide technical tools and support to the Washington State Department of Health, the King County Vaccination Partnership – Redmond site on Microsoft’s campus has administered more than 120,000 vaccinations, and continues to accept registration for all eligible members of the public with an emphasis on serving high-risk communities. More than 1,300 employees have volunteered 9,000 hours at the Lumen Field vaccination site in downtown Seattle and, with Microsoft’s Employee Volunteer Match Program, every hour is matched with a donation of $25 (up to $15,000 per year). The Lumen Field volunteer effort has played an outsized role in employee giving being responsible for $275,000 granted to the All in WA Vaccine Equity Initiative to support equitable vaccine access in Washington.
For all the progress the Legislature made on issues affecting state residents, one area of disappointment was its inability to enact legislation to protect and preserve consumers’ right to privacy. As we are increasingly connected in this digital age, this is a critically important issue.
We applaud the leadership of Senator Reuven Carlyle, prime sponsor of the Washington Privacy Act and recognize the important bipartisan support provided by Senator Ann Rivers in the Washington State Senate, which, for the third year in a row, overwhelmingly passed a bill that would have provided Washingtonians with strong data privacy rights. We also recognize the significant efforts of Representatives Drew Hansen and Drew Stokesbary to address the concerns of stakeholders in the Washington State House of Representatives on this important issue.
In spite of this work, we regret that ultimately the House of Representatives failed to pass the data privacy bill again this session.
We believe Washingtonians need and deserve more privacy protections in state law, and Washington residents would be better protected today had the Washington Privacy Act passed. We remain dedicated to pursuing strong protections so all consumers will be able to trust that their data will only be used as they wish and thus can feel more confident in their online activities.
For more than a decade, Microsoft has engaged in sustainability efforts to address what we see as one of the most important issues of our time: climate change. In 2020, the company announced its pledge to become carbon negative by 2030, to remove the carbon it has emitted over the course of its entire history by 2050, and to deploy $1 billion in new capital to accelerate climate innovation and technology adoption.
The science is clear that we have a limited amount of time to address climate change, and it will take both local and global responses from the public and the private sectors to have a meaningful impact. That’s why we advocated for the passage of the Governor’s Climate Commitment Act sponsored by Senator Carlyle and shepherded through the House by Representative Joe Fitzgibbon. It made Washington the second state to establish a cap on carbon emissions, and the resulting revenue will be dedicated to fund clean transportation, climate resilience solutions, clean energy transition and emission reduction projects. Microsoft strongly supported this measure and we look forward to seeing its successful implementation.
Strong and secure connectivity
Cybercrime costs businesses, governments and individuals more than $1 trillion a year, which is why it was so important that the Washington State Legislature addressed the state government’s cyber resilience during this year’s session. First, they passed a bill authorizing state agencies to house their IT systems in the commercial cloud, a move that could save the state an estimated $150 million over the next five years. Lawmakers also created a new cybersecurity office under the purview of the state’s Chief Technology Officer to establish protocols for responding to cyberattacks. With these moves, Washington is taking important steps to harden the state’s IT infrastructure for the security challenges that lie ahead.
We also need to ensure that every Washingtonian in every urban and rural community has access to a reliable internet connection. Broadband has become the electricity of the 21st century – especially during the Covid-19 pandemic – providing the lifeblood for jobs, health care and education. Since 2018, Microsoft has called for more aggressive public and private investments in broadband to accelerate connectivity and economic development in rural parts of the state. We are encouraged by the Legislature’s $411 million investment to improve and expand broadband access to unserved and underserved communities. With grants for broadband infrastructure projects through the Washington State Broadband Office and Community Economic Revitalization Board, and loans awarded by the Public Works Board to promote expanded access in unserved areas, our state will become better prepared to unleash the promise and potential of people living in every region within Washington state.
The pandemic has amplified the extremely fragile nature of housing for too many Washingtonians. Once the state’s current eviction moratorium is lifted, it will be important to provide additional assistance to prevent people from slipping into housing instability and homelessness.
Recognizing this need, the Legislature committed $175 million to the Housing Trust Fund and directed an additional $365 million in federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan for housing resources and rental assistance.
In addition to these critically important direct investments, the Legislature enacted several policy measures to make more affordable housing options available. They expanded the Multi-Family Tax Exemption to help preserve and add more affordable housing for middle-income families, many of whom serve our communities in areas like law enforcement, firefighting, education and nursing. Microsoft supported this expansion of the Multi-Family Tax Exemption and we are pleased that lawmakers also have funded a study to analyze continued expansion of the program. The Legislature also authorized the use of local tax revenues to acquire facilities to provide permanent supportive housing to those experiencing chronic homelessness, an important new tool for local governments like King County.
These decisions will make a huge difference in the housing circumstances for thousands of people in our community and we salute legislators for their actions. More work lies ahead to address our housing challenges – from investing to expand supported public housing facilities that serve the chronically homeless to encouraging development of housing that is affordable to all income segments – and will demand the continued attention of state and local governments, the private sector and nonprofit organizations.
On March 12, Governor Inslee announced an emergency proclamation requiring all Washington schools to offer a hybrid model of instruction. We applaud this move to get our students back into the classroom, while providing the flexibility needed for each family to be comfortable with how their students receive instruction. We are also relieved that school districts will not lose funding as they experience enrollment declines as a result of the pandemic and that federal funds will be directed to support learning recovery needed after an extended period of remote instruction.
While improving learning and providing more opportunities for every student will require our ongoing commitment, we saw important inroads from early learning to higher education made during the session.
The “Fair Start for Kids” program will dedicate investments to childcare and early learning, increasing subsidies for services, expanding availability, and improving resources for providers. Expansion of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship eligibility will provide more options for students in rural areas wishing to attend community and technical colleges. Community and technical colleges can now offer applied bachelor’s degrees in computer science, and additional slots were created to allow more students to study at the University of Washington’s world-class Computer Science & Engineering program.
There will always be more work to be done to ensure the economic and social health of our state. Some issues that weren’t settled this year will have to be addressed in the future, and important new issues will emerge next year and the year after that. Even though their work is never done, the Washington State Legislature deserves a virtual round of applause for making this legislative session as productive as it was. We look forward to working with leaders in all communities throughout the state between now and next January to develop consensus, identify new solutions and build on progress made this year.