Everett legislator says grant to aerospace group could be seen as a payoff

OLYMPIA — An Everett lawmaker is concerned that a $200,000 grant in the state Senate budget could be seen as a reward to an aerospace group that helped convince Boeing to build the 777X in Washington.

Senators steered the money to the Aerospace Futures Alliance to “conduct research and develop strategies” for linking aerospace suppliers with firms in other industries that rely on workers with similar skills.

They added the earmark through an amendment shortly before passing the budget by a 41-8 vote last week.

Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, questioned the last-minute addition of money for the nonprofit alliance, a leading voice for the aerospace industry which has a Boeing lobbyist on its board of directors.

Sells, who is chairman of the House Labor and Workforce Development Committee, said the issue needs better vetting by lawmakers. If worthy, the task could be given to the state’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board or another state entity, rather than a group with a political agenda, he said.

“I’m concerned about the perception of corruption,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s corruption. People could read that into it whether it’s true or not.”

Alliance members pressed lawmakers in November to extend tax breaks sought by Boeing as a condition for building the new plane in the state. Then the group helped pay for newspaper ads urging members of the Machinists union to approve a new contract — a second Boeing stipulation.

Sells, who is secretary treasurer of the Snohomish County Labor Council, criticized Gov. Jay Inslee and other civic leaders for publicly pressuring Machinists to approve the contract, which sought major concessions from workers.

“The problem is this is an organization that took a position on the Machinists contract, and it now looks like we’re paying off,” he said. “It just doesn’t look good.”

Linda Lanham, executive director of the alliance, bristled at Sells’ insinuations.

“I think it was a ridiculous accusation,” she said. “I think he’s upset about what happened in the process of getting the 777X in the state of Washington. I think it’s very sad that this has gotten mixed up with another agenda.”

Lanham said that if suppliers can diversify through partnerships with non-aerospace companies, the state’s manufacturing base will be more stable. In particular, many skills of aerospace workers are transferable to maritime, automobile and medical-device work.

If approved, grant funding would be used for a plan to deliver to lawmakers as early as next January, she said.

“This was not about Boeing,” Lanham said. “This was about keeping this skilled workforce employed in the down cycles.”

Several senators, including Democrats Marko Liias of Everett and Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens, said they did not share Sells’ concerns when they voted for the budget.

Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, said it never crossed his mind when he agreed to introduce the amendment for the grant.

“I’ve worked with Linda (Lanham) for a number of years. She understands these issues,” he said.

The proposed House budget expected to be voted on today does not include the earmark.

Alliance leaders are considering whether to try to have it included in the final agreement between the two chambers.

“We’re discussing it right now,” Lanham said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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