This month marks two years since the first case of Covid-19 was identified in Washington state. That anniversary serves as a sobering reminder that we continue to face persistent challenges in overcoming public health, economic and community disruptions brought on by the virus. We embrace the advances in science and medicine that have allowed for the development of life-saving vaccinations, and we salute the medical professionals and others on the front line in battling the disease. At the same time, we know that we will continue to be tested by the uncertainty posed by the virus.
The need has never been greater to address the critical issues facing the state. We believe that state budget resources, public policies and private-sector commitments must all focus on driving a timely and inclusive recovery.
At Microsoft, one of those commitments is to transparency regarding our legislative agenda. For the past five years, we have shared our key priorities for the upcoming session of the Washington State Legislature. Our 2022 priorities fall into four major areas: transportation, housing, education and sustainability. Each poses immediate challenges and long-term opportunities to help create a brighter future for all Washingtonians. We can build on progress the legislature has already made in those areas and help the state and local communities become more resilient, more vibrant and more equitable.
It’s no secret that Washington’s transportation infrastructure has failed to keep up with the state’s rapid growth over the past several decades. Now, changing work patterns, better fuel efficiency and increased use of electric vehicles make traditional funding mechanisms, such as the gas tax, less effective in generating sufficient revenues to close the infrastructure gap.
We join other employers, organized labor, transit advocates and others in continuing to urge the legislature to make new investments in the state’s transportation infrastructure this session.
Among those investments should be providing funds to continue development work on a high-speed rail system to connect Seattle with Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Governor Inslee has asked for $4 million to support continued work on system governance, financing, route analysis and community engagement in preparation for construction. Additionally, we have a unique opportunity to leverage federal dollars, and Governor Inslee has requested $50 million to match federal funds that may be available to the state as a result of the bipartisan infrastructure bill recently signed into law. The proposed high-speed rail system will be a game-changer, allowing the Cascadia region to respond to the growth it is experiencing and positioning it for continued success for generations to come.
Another area demanding immediate attention is funding for projects to ease congestion in one of the fastest-growing areas of the state – the I-405/SR-167 corridor – to improve travel in East King County and provide a major alternative route to I-5 for South King County. These projects were identified for funding in 2019, but the required bonding to begin work on them was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. With employees gradually returning to work, and continued significant employment growth forecast for the area, it’s critical to begin work on these projects as soon as possible.
Like transportation, Washington’s housing supply has not kept up with rapid growth. There simply isn’t enough housing to go around, which means that too many of our neighbors either remain without homes or are being priced out of their existing neighborhoods.
In 2019, Microsoft created its Affordable Housing Initiative to help address this critical issue, and has committed $750 million to support affordable housing preservation and development.
Still, improving the housing outlook for all Washingtonians will require a comprehensive statewide strategy of strategic investments and innovative public policies to dramatically increase the number of housing units available at all levels of affordability.
With this in mind, we are joining other employers in supporting the appropriation of at least $450 million of Washington’s remaining American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to acquire existing housing and additional housing units quickly, and to provide funding for increased services for people experiencing homelessness. These dollars can have a huge impact in providing both shelters and long-term supported housing options to help thousands of our most vulnerable neighbors receive access to housing and needed services.
This combination of strategic investment and well-designed public policy will provide benefits to Washingtonians today and for years to come.
The Covid-19 pandemic continues to have a profound impact on education in our state, across the country and around the world. It has presented massive challenges to students, parents and educators forced to adopt new remote or hybrid learning models. Even as schools return primarily to in-person instruction, they continue to address learning recovery and social-emotional challenges posed by the break from traditional schooling. The pandemic has taken a tremendous toll on teachers that the state must take steps to address this burden, which is why we also support investments to provide additional nurses and counselors in Washington schools.
At the same time, Covid-19 also has provided additional and powerful evidence of the importance of education. Statistics show that the economic disruptions caused by the virus were far more significant among those with a lower level of educational attainment.
Recognizing the value of post-secondary education, the continuing evolution of the state economy and the need for students to be prepared for the jobs being created in the state, Microsoft will continue to support the Credential Is Essential initiative launched by the Partnership for Learning.
The goal of this initiative is to ensure that, by the class of 2030, 70% of Washington high school graduates are earning some post-secondary credential, whether an industry certification, an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree or higher. With only 40% of recent graduates earning such credentials, we still have a long way to go to fully prepare Washington students for the best job opportunities being created in our state. One important step is to expand dual-enrollment and dual-credit programs in Washington, as studies show that students who earn some higher education credit while still in high school are much more likely to pursue and secure a post-secondary credential. Ensuring that all students can take advantage of these opportunities means identifying and removing barriers that prevent some from doing so.
Supporting students in pursuing post-secondary education that leads to rewarding careers is also the goal of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS). Microsoft has been an early and consistent supporter of WSOS over its 10-year history. During that time, the private sector contributed more than $130 million to WSOS, which the state has consistently matched dollar for dollar. As a result of this unique public-private partnership, more than 14,000 students – primarily those from low- and moderate-income families, students of color and many first-generation college enrollees – have received financial aid and other support to pursue careers in fast-growing trade, STEM and health care fields. We encourage the legislature to appropriate $7.3 million to fund the state match of private donations, per the legislation that established WSOS. We also support HB 1805/SB5797 to align WSOS with the Washington College Grant statute and to ensure equity for rural students through the rural jobs match. Finally, these bills will increase access to WSOS for working nurses, an especially timely enhancement.
Additionally, in recognition that computational thinking is a foundational skill for the 21st century, Microsoft will continue to support efforts in both K-12 and higher education to help students acquire these skills. These include supporting the development a statewide strategy for computer science education, advocating for additional funding to the University of Washington CSE program to expand enrollments, and supporting increased funding for cybersecurity faculty and programs within our community and technical colleges and Washington State University. To close the gap in Washington state in the critically important cybersecurity workforce, Microsoft has partnered with community and technical colleges such as Whatcom College and Big Bend Community College to support their cybersecurity education programs. As part of our national partnership to close the cybersecurity skills gap, we hope to make curriculum available free of charge to all public community colleges, provide training for new and existing faculty at 150 community colleges, and provide scholarships and supplemental resources to 25,000 students.
Perhaps most importantly, we will continue to support a more sustainable future for residents of Washington and, indeed, the entire planet. Microsoft has committed to be carbon negative by 2030, and, by 2050, it will remove from the environment all of the carbon it has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since its founding in 1975. This commitment means fundamental changes in our business practices, from how we build our structures to the electricity we use to power our operations, to how our employees get to work and move around our campuses, and to the supplies we use in our offices and cafeterias.
We are pleased that the leaders in all branches of Washington state government are taking a similarly expansive view on what we recognize as the defining issue for this and future generations. We will offer our support and expertise as the state implements climate legislation enacted in the 2021 session. We encourage lawmakers to consider new approaches to accelerate clean energy investments, including work on multi-state strategies to decarbonize the electrical grid in a way that serves us all.
While these are our four highest priorities heading into the 2022 legislative session, we know that there are many other important issues that will command lawmakers’ attention, and we look forward to constructively engaging with them. This can include continued progress on racial justice, providing meaningful privacy protections for consumers, expanding broadband deployment so every Washington resident has access to strong and affordable high-speed internet connections, creating more economic and job growth opportunities for Washington communities where growth has been slower, and creating a structure that provides more options for independent device repair while preserving the safety and security of the customers using them.
Despite the challenges ahead of us, we are confident our communities and the elected officials who represent them can come together to address these challenges and initiate the important changes our state needs to succeed.
There’s no doubt that the 2022 session will be a busy 60 days. We look forward to contributing and to hearing your views on our priorities.