Legislators doing state no favors by actions

By Jon Talton, Originally published by Seattle Times


It is not true that the recent session of the Washington Legislature failed to accomplish anything.

In fact, legislators delivered a sledgehammer to state competitiveness by killing the nearly 20-year-old research and development incentives that have helped Washington keep up with rivals worldwide.

Lawmakers also energetically torpedoed investment in transportation projects that are essential to moving freight and ensuring a strong export economy.

This provoked Maud Daudon, president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, to write, “We’ve lost one of the few tools to attract and grow new businesses in the technology sector, and our transportation infrastructure continues to decline without sufficient resources.”

Indeed, $74 million in state incentives over the past nine years resulted in $443 million in outside money, along with billions more in research grants for life sciences.

Much of this funding would not have been obtainable without the state priming the pump.

Then there were the sins of omission. Most notable were the failure to restore university funding to prerecession levels and kicking the can down the road on K-12 education moneys to meet the requirements of the McCleary court decision.

Overall, with admirable exceptions, most lawmakers seem to lack any sense of government’s essential role in keeping Washington ahead in a highly competitive world.

“That government is best which governs least’’ is a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson. But the sentiment didn’t stop the third president from using government to create a continental empire through the Louisiana Purchase. Nor did the Jeffersonians flinch from using policy to perpetuate the most important engine of national exports: the slave-based cotton empire.

To be sure, lawmakers stepped up in a special session that provided nearly $9 billion in incentives to keep Boeing’s 777X program here, and thus maintain a world-class aerospace and manufacturing sector. But overall, about the best that can be said about the sausage-making just concluded came from a longtime business observer: “It was a short session.”

What’s going on?

One big problem is structural. The Legislature’s committees are silos that prevent a holistic appreciation of economic needs, as well as how social and environmental issues interplay with the economy.

There is partisan division like what is seen nationwide. Republicans control the Senate and Democrats the House. A relatively small, but obstinate tea-party faction within the GOP is theoretically opposed to any government action.

And there is an urban-rural divide. This manifests itself in a particularly toxic way with some lawmakers adamantly opposed to anything that seems to benefit Seattle, and hence any cities. Like Seattle, the University of Washington is almost seen as the devil by some legislators.

That’s too bad considering that the metro area and universities are the golden geese that pay the way for the rest of the state, especially net-taker rural districts.

Yet even the city delegations can’t act collectively and make the most of their power. Some of the paralysis is not partisan or urban versus rural, but an inability of a majority to find its groove and pass constructive legislation.

This calls into question a strategy advocated by the Brookings Institution where, in a gridlocked Washington, D.C., states and metro areas can solve problems on their own.

The successes this session were few. A bill passed that sets a 10-year goal for improved education, that all adults between 25 and 44 would have a high-school diploma or equivalent by 2023 and 70 percent of those would attain a postsecondary credential.

The Legislature also agreed to petition Congress for reform of the Harbor Maintenance Tax. As it stands, this tax and its trust fund works to the disadvantage of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

House Bill 2580 established a legislative task force to focus on the needs of the state’s economic infrastructure, especially the maritime and manufacturing sectors, a first step in breaking down some of those silos.

Otherwise, the Legislature moved on a path to become an actual impediment to Washington’s economy.

The state’s successes help breed complacency in Olympia. Every time a list comes out showing Seattle or Washington at or near the top of the economic heap, it allows lawmakers to indulge in ambition, score settling and nappy time.

But these achievements are heavily dependent on a gas tank filled over the decades by lawmakers that put the public good and logic over partisanship and regional infighting.

Beneath this remains “the two Washingtons,” one prosperous and the other deeply troubled.

For example, a recent U.S. Department of Education report showed that Washington’s high-school graduation rate was 64 percent for Hispanics, 63 percent for African Americans and 59 percent for members of Native tribes. This compared with nearly 78 percent for whites. All were below the national average.

Even in flourishing Seattle, 15 percent of children were below the poverty line in 2012, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count report. In 2009, the number was 8 percent.

From an economic standpoint, this is a serious human-capital problem, not only affecting individual opportunity but also the state’s competitiveness.

To be sure, state leaders confront daunting roadblocks. The tax system doesn’t fit the needs of an urbanized, 21st-century state. It falls heavily on the working poor. But voters have shown no inclination to change things.

The passage of Initiative 695 in 1999, which limited the tax on car tabs, continues to do damage to the ability to invest in infrastructure or even maintain ferry service.

For all this, Washington continues to hum along, at least for many citizens. Yet this is misleading.

It doesn’t matter if we’re not as kooky as Arizona or as backward as Mississippi. The high-quality competition runs from Silicon Valley to Shanghai and Singapore.

It may take a crisis to get the attention of a majority in Olympia.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com