Lots of attention has been paid to legislation adopted in Olympia to make Washington a better place for families. And there’s no question that Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature were productive this session.
They approved better funding for education and health-care coverage for all kids by 2010. They gave the State Patrol more detectives to protect kids from online predators. And beginning in 2009, working parents may receive up to five weeks of pay to stay home to care for a new child.
Our lawmakers made Washington a national leader in confronting climate change, which threatens our quality of life. And drivers will be required to use their cell phones more responsibly. We’ve seen too many loved ones killed by drivers who were more focused on dialing than on driving.
More criminals will be locked up, and more services will be provided to reduce repeat offenses.
The state budget also will be backed by a new rainy-day fund that voters can approve to ensure the stability of government services during a recession.
As a long-time Washington resident and the mother of two children, I appreciate these forward-thinking accomplishments.
But as a former business executive and now the head of the Employment Security Department, I also care about Washington’s business climate. And I’m pleased to say that the 2007 legislative session was good for business, too.
Working together with Gov. Gregoire, my top priority this year was to craft a more equitable and efficient unemployment-insurance system – and we got it.
Beginning in 2008, unemployment tax rates for new employers will be lowered to more accurately reflect their actual costs, saving them more than $9 million each year. The tax cut will particularly help small businesses, which often struggle in their first few years.
In another change, employers will be held more accountable for their own unemployment costs so they can’t pass those costs off to other businesses.
People who try to collect unemployment benefits they don’t deserve also will face new penalties and longer suspension periods. And that’s on top of the current requirement to repay any benefits they may have received.
These stiffer penalties should reduce unemployment fraud. In turn, this will help control employers’ costs, keep their tax rates stable and protect the unemployment fund for those who legitimately qualify for benefits.
I often see businesses struggling to find workers with the right skills to fill their job openings. So, I am especially pleased that our colleges and universities will be able to expand enrollment in high-demand fields and apprenticeship programs, training a new work force to expand the number of qualified job seekers.
Other exciting changes include new innovation partnership zones to match globally competitive companies with research institutions – resulting in new products, skills training and local economic growth.
Also, Grays Harbor, Kelso and Pullman will get new small-business development centers. And university research will be expanded to create and test new products that have commercial applications in Washington.
There’s more, but you get the picture.
The 2007 legislative session resulted in changes that families can count on. It also proved that Washington is truly open for business.
Karen T. Lee is commissioner of the state Employment Security Department.