Benchmarks for Olympia

As Washingtonians, leg gaiter by leg gaiter, slowly pull out of the Great Recession ooze, lawmakers and a governor-to-be will revisit the region’s blue-sky goals. What became of the innovation economy, of the Microsoft and dot-com gold rush that would enhance public education from Seattle to Stanwood? Outrageous misfortune, a mortgage crisis, financial missteps (try to explain derivatives in 5,000 words or less) and two wars locked arms to spur the worst economic slump since the 1930s.

Despite the hangover, policymakers are dusting off, tracking their spot on the recovery map, and hitting the reset button to get back on course.

Earlier this spring, the Washington Roundtable, the nonprofit spearheaded by Washington’s larger businesses (think Boeing and Fluke), released a set of benchmarks to quantify innovation and the cost of doing business. Some measures are particularly encouraging. Washington has the lowest electricity rates in the nation at 5.6 cents per kilowatt hour (hat tip to FDR’s New Deal, public power and the Columbia River.) Washington also ranks fifth in the country for patents granted, a key yardstick of the state’s intellectual capital. In addition, job growth in the private sector remains fairly robust (insofar as any growth is positive) with Washington coming in eighth. After that, well, pay no attention to the data behind the curtain.

Washington sits in the bottom half of states for bachelor’s degrees awarded per capita (“We’re No. 38!” doesn’t have that inspired college ring.) This means that many of the Pacific Northwest’s patent-generating brains attended out-of-state universities, something legislators will need to address over the long term by increasing enrollment at Washington’s community and four-year colleges.

High school graduation rates are also discouraging, squeaking in at 37th in the nation. For those who stay in school, the statistics are more promising. Student achievement in math is 12th and achievement in science is 18th.

From a quality-of-life and business perspective, many of the state’s long-term challenges center on transportation infrastructure. It may sound snooze inducing, but consider Washington’s embarrassing number of “functionally obsolete bridges.” (We’re lumbering along at 42.) Not coincidentally, the average commute time is also longer than average. We can do better.

The Washington Roundtable does a superb job of presenting baselines with the goal of reaching the top 10 in every benchmark. There is a political-courage component in the Roundtable’s strategy because no one, Democrat or Republican, will be elated by what’s required to get there. A gas tax or MVET? And how does Washington address its high unemployment-insurance taxes without alienating organized labor?

The 2013 legislative session will determine if the state is serious about making meaningful progress, the kind of progress that may not be visible for years. The windfall for future generations merits the investment.

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