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Path to a brighter future

Benchmarks can guide Washington toward economic success

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By Brad Smith
Like every state, Washington has been rocked by recession. Unemployment continues to hover perilously close to 10 percent. Businesses and families are cutting back on spending as they try to weather the storm. State revenues seem to be riding an elevator with only a down button.
By all accounts, Washington is troubled and lawmakers are hearing it from all sides. For every demand to raise taxes, there is a counter argument that doing so will hinder job creation and delay recovery.
Although the debate has been heated at times, so far we have avoided the gridlock and antagonism that has seized other state capitals. To continue avoiding such debilitating stalemates, we need to take a breath, determine what a better Washington looks like and set a course for ongoing improvement.
This desire for long-term vision has prompted the Washington Roundtable, a public policy organization made up of chief executives representing major private sector employers, to propose a series of "Benchmarks for a Better Washington." We believe these benchmarks can be the first step toward agreement about where our state should be headed and the most important steps to get there.
The benchmarks represent a balanced agenda built around two objectives necessary for Washington's long-term success and vitality: First, to protect and enhance quality of life and encourage innovation; and, second, to provide employers and their employees with the competitive edge necessary to succeed in a global economy.
Among the quality of life and innovation indicators are:
•private sector job growth,
•patents issued,
•high school graduation rates,
•student performance in math and science,
•bachelor's degrees awarded per capita,
•the quality of roads and bridges, and
•reduced commute times.
Our goal in each case is to be among the top 10 states in the nation.
In employer competitiveness, we focused on maintaining low electricity rates, while working to improve our ranking on business tax burden, and moving out of the 10 most costly states on things like unemployment insurance and workers' compensation.
Utilizing clear, independent, state-by-state data, the benchmarks provide a positive, focused and achievable vision for Washington. Complete information on the Benchmarks for a Better Washington is available at Each metric includes a description of its importance, Washington's current ranking, and the improvement necessary to meet our goal.
In some cases, our state is in good shape. We enjoy the lowest electricity rates in the nation and are fifth in patents received, for instance.
But in other areas, much work remains to be done. Washington is 35th in both high school graduation rates and bachelor's degrees awarded per capita. In the rapidly changing global economy, we must do a better job of providing our young people with the skills to compete.
Our transportation system must be improved to support movement of people and products. Washington is 16th in the percentage of roads deemed to be in good or very good condition, and 42nd in functional obsolescence of our bridges. Reaching the top 10 in these categories requires focused, long-term planning, investment and accountability.
We also must reduce the costs for Washington employers to operate and create jobs. We rank 38th in terms of business tax burden (with one being the lowest business tax state and 50 being the highest); most of the 12 states with higher business taxes have economies dominated by mining, petroleum and other natural resource extraction industries that tend to generate lots of state revenue. Similarly, we hover near the bottom with high workers' compensation and unemployment costs (ranking 49th and 46th, respectively).
The benchmarks reflect our belief that, to succeed, Washington must compete on both value and cost. They reflect our commitment to provide a quality education for all of our young people; build safe, reliable and efficient public infrastructure; and create a business climate that spurs innovation, attracts investment and encourages job creation.
These ideas have been shared with the governor, her cabinet and legislative leaders. As state leaders consider our benchmarks, we expect other constituencies will present their own indicators of state success.
That kind of debate is healthy. An honest exchange regarding Washington's priorities is valuable. We all want Washington to be the best possible place to work, learn, live and raise a family.
Our purpose in proposing these benchmarks is not solely to encourage our elected officials to take steps to improve our state's position. They can spur the business community and hopefully others to take other kinds of action as well.
In K-12 education, Boeing, Microsoft, McKinstry Co., The Gates Foundation, and others have launched Washington STEM, a nonprofit to drive improvements in student achievement in science, technology, engineering and math. We have already raised more than $20 million and the first round of grants have been made to help expand programs producing good results. Our goal is to raise $100 million in private money to help Washington's public schools better prepare students for the future.
In higher education, we have proposed a new endowment to provide more financial aid for students from low- and middle-income families coping with higher tuition levels necessary because of shrinking state support. With the state providing an incentive -- in the form of a tax credit or a state match -- to spur donations, our goal is to raise $1 billion over the next decade from businesses, foundations and individuals.
In transportation, we are leading a coalition of business, labor, environmental and civic interests working toward new, long-term investment in statewide transportation. We will ensure our plans include a prioritized project list, funding sources, clear performance measures and appropriate governance structures to plan, prioritize and fund state and regional projects.
Our hope is these innovative partnerships, coupled with a comprehensive and candid dialogue on our state's goals for the future, will launch a new and productive era of cooperation in building Washington's economic and community health.
If we succeed, the uncivil and unproductive stand-offs we've seen stall the legislative process elsewhere will never paralyze progress here. Instead, we will ensure that Washington emerges from the recession positioned to expand opportunities for its citizens.
Brad Smith is general counsel of Microsoft Corp. He also is the immediate past chairman of The Washington Roundtable, a nonprofit, public policy organization composed of chief executives representing major private sector employers throughout Washington.

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