Business climate: What politicians can do to help

Guest Opinion: The Legislature still had time to address the state's most important assets for a competitive economy, education and transportation.
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Guest Opinion: The Legislature still had time to address the state's most important assets for a competitive economy, education and transportation.

Crosscut co-hosts Civic Cocktail, a happy hour celebration of civic nerdery, on the first Wednesday of each month with CityClub and the Seattle Channel. This month we'll tackle a host of topics: Olympia, the Seattle mayor's race and the state of business. Join us this Wednesday, June 5, from 5:30- 7 p.m. for a televised bout of drinks and discussion. Register here.

Less than two weeks remain in the special legislative session and it’s time for lawmakers to finish the state’s business.  A recent update of the Washington Roundtable’s Benchmarks for a Better Washington — an annual report measuring our state’s economic vitality —underscores the need for action on education and transportation policy.  Two key takeaways:

  • Washington ranks among the bottom half of all states for high school graduation rates (32nd) and bachelor’s degrees awarded per capita (39th).  We know 70 percent of jobs in Washington will require postsecondary education by 2020, yet nearly a quarter of high school students aren’t making it to graduation, let alone college. 
  • Washington ranks 41st for bridge conditions, with 21.6 percent of bridges deemed functionally obsolete (including the Skagit River Bridge that recently collapsed), and 29th for road conditions.  We have more than $3 billion in identified maintenance, operations and preservation needs and we aren’t investing enough to take care of the system we have.

We want to make Washington a top 10 state in all of those categories. The 2013 Legislature has an opportunity to make progress to that end.

Budget negotiations are ongoing, but both the House and Senate have committed at least $1 billion in new K-12 spending.They also passed legislation enabling the state to intervene in chronically low-performing schools. This is the right course: increased investment with accountability for results. 

Lawmakers should approve additional education reforms before calling their 2013 work complete. A third grade literacy bill will help ensure students don’t slip through the cracks. A bill giving principals and teachers a mutual say in teacher assignment will help place great teachers in every classroom.  A bill to assign letter grades to schools will increase transparency for families and communities. 

Lawmakers must also ensure our higher education institutions are prepared to develop talent. This means protecting funding for our universities and increasing production of STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering and math). 

A recent Boston Consulting Group analysis identified 25,000 jobs in Washington state that had been open for three months or more because employers couldn’t find qualified candidates. That number is expected to grow to 50,000 jobs by 2017, 90 percent of which are STEM positions. Filling these jobs would create another 110,000 jobs broadly across the economy. We have great jobs in Washington state and more are coming if we foster the talent to fill them.

Transportation was already an important topic for the 2013 Legislature, but it’s getting more attention following the Skagit River Bridge collapse. With rankings among the bottom 10 states for bridge conditions and bottom half for road conditions, Washington’s transportation system is clearly fragile.

The last new statewide investment in transportation came in 2005. That money — most of which was targeted to new project construction — is used up, but we still have more than $3 billion in ongoing maintenance, operations and preservation needs.  Without action, 50 percent of state highway pavement will be in poor or very poor condition in just 10 years. 

Is it exciting to spend money on maintenance? Never. But it needs to be done and waiting only makes it more expensive. We need action from lawmakers on a statewide transportation investment.  It should focus on taking care of the system we have and finishing projects in critical corridors.  

All of this will be done within the context of state budget discussions that have been percolating for months. The budget solution should be sustainable and avoid actions that undermine the economic recovery. 

Decision time is here. Education is the driver of prosperity and individual quality of life. Transportation is the backbone of commerce. Both need attention before the 2013 Legislature adjourns.


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