Next Generation Washington 2018

Last January, we published for the first time a blog that outlined the positions Microsoft would be advocating as we walked the halls of our state capitol in Olympia. As we pointed out, public interest groups had called for greater transparency by companies, and we had concluded that they made a good point. People seemed to appreciate last year’s publication, so we’re taking the same step this year.

We appreciate the hard work and personal sacrifices our state legislators make each year. As we move forward in this year’s session, I’ve sketched Microsoft’s priorities in Washington state below. You’ll find our thoughts on several issues, including education and workforce development, climate change, rural economic development, the Cascadia Corridor, the Special Olympics and a few others. No doubt you may agree with some of our positions more than others. But regardless of the substance of the issue, we hope you’ll find this helpful.

Strengthening education and workforce development

The short 2018 legislative session provides an opportunity to build on the accomplishments that our legislators achieved last year in Olympia during the six-month session. Last year they passed a landmark bipartisan budget designed to inject an additional $7.3 billion into schools over the next four years. As we noted last July, this continued a trend that began with the McCleary decision in 2012. That year, the state spent $13.4 billion per biennium (two years) on K-12 education. By the 2019-2021 biennium, the state will spend $26.6 billion on K-12 education. Much of the new funding is based on student need, which helps to close stubborn opportunity gaps for many students in high-poverty schools.

While the state’s Supreme Court has acknowledged the importance of this progress, it has also called on the legislature to accelerate this spending increase. As a result, this is an important priority for this legislative session, and we hope it can be addressed effectively.

At the same time, it’s critical that our legislators take additional steps to address other education and workforce development needs. Technology is changing jobs and people will need to develop new skills to succeed in the future. For the people of our state to be successful, we need to continue to increase high school graduation rates and then provide a path towards a post-secondary credential, whether that’s an industry certification, a college degree or some other credential. The state has set the important goal of helping 70 percent of Washingtonians between the ages of 25 to 44 to achieve a post-secondary degree or credential by 2023. Today, that figure is only 51 percent, with larger deficits among important racial, geographic and economic segments. In short, we have a lot of work to do.

One of our best opportunities is to invest in a strong career-connected learning strategy that will provide young people with learning and training programs that will provide them with the skills and credentials they need to pursue our state’s jobs. Microsoft has been a strong supporter of Gov. Jay Inslee’s goal of connecting 100,000 young people with career-connected learning opportunities. I’ve co-chaired – along with MacDonald-Miller’s Perry England – the governor’s task force to address this issue. We’ve learned from the business, labor, education and policy leaders involved what an important opportunity our state has to lead the nation in better preparing our young people for the full range of jobs across the state. I’m excited about the recommendations we’re finalizing and will present to the governor and public next month. I hope our legislators will support the governor as he continues to lead the state on this issue, and I hope that companies across the business community and organized labor groups will work closely with our educators to make these opportunities real for our young people.

While we undertake this new career-connected learning initiative, it’s also important for the 2018 session to address two areas of narrower but vital unfinished business left over from last year. The first is to provide $3 million in supplemental funding to complete the doubling – to over 600 – of computer science degree capacity at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering. We’re exceedingly fortunate as a state to have in the Allen School one of the world’s premier computer science departments located in the middle of a region that is creating so many computer science jobs.

I chaired the effort that completed the fundraising in 2017 to build a second computer science building at the University of Washington. Microsoft was a major contributor, as was the state itself, Amazon, Zillow, Google and so many generous individuals. Now that we’ve raised over $70 million of private money to build this building, we’re hoping the legislature will allocate $3 million so the university can fill it with Washington students.

Finally, we have a key opportunity to continue to help remove financial barriers for lower-income students to pursue college degrees in high demand STEM and healthcare fields by advancing and funding the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS).

Microsoft has supported WSOS and I’ve chaired the program’s board since it was founded in 2011. Thanks to the terrific leadership of Naria Santa Lucia, our executive director, and some remarkable partners across the state, the WSOS program is already leading the nation with its innovative work to match private sector contributions with state funding and services for our scholars. More than 3,800 students who grew up in Washington state are attending colleges in the state on these scholarships this year. Because the program continues to grow, just over 1,750 of this total are new scholars added this year. And consider this: 60 percent of this new group are female, 72 percent are among the first generation in their families to attend college and 73 percent are students of color. It helps put our state at the forefront of national efforts to create better opportunities for young people of all backgrounds.

The legislature can take two additional steps this session to help the WSOS achieve even more. The first is to include an additional appropriation in its supplemental budget to match the increasing level of private donations to the program. And the second is to authorize WSOS to provide new support to students looking to pursue industry certification and associate degree programs in STEM-related fields at our state’s 34 community and technical colleges.

Addressing climate change

A second important issue on the state legislature’s agenda this year is one of the broadest issues for the planet: climate change. As a company, Microsoft is focusing on new ways we can use artificial intelligence and other technology to help address this problem, including through our AI for Earth program. This builds on ongoing work to ensure our local campus and our datacenters worldwide use more green energy. This includes setting an internal price on carbon we charge our business units, purchasing renewable energy and establishing extensive commuting and carpooling programs.  As companies across the tech sector help address climate issues, we believe that Washington state has a key role to play as well.

We applaud Gov. Inslee for his longstanding commitment to this issue, as well as the work of several legislators who have emerged as leaders in addressing it. Washington is already one of the lowest carbon emitters per capita, in part because of the important clean energy investments made by Washington businesses and families. But we all need to do more.

We hope the legislature will work with stakeholders across the state to drive reductions in total carbon emissions, while minimizing economic disruptions, creating new job opportunities and addressing the water infrastructure needs that are so vital for the eastern part of our state. In 2017, we saw the value of diverse interests coming together to craft a balanced solution that makes Washington a leader on paid family leave. A similar collaborative approach can help us forge progress in addressing climate change.

Supporting rural Washington

One of the issues we learned a lot more about in 2017 was the importance of expanding opportunities for people in rural communities in the United States. The more we’ve learned, the more passionate we’ve become. We’re now working with state governments across the country, and we hope that our own legislature will take the steps needed to ensure we can do work in our home state that matches the work we’re doing and witnessing elsewhere.

One of the issues that deserves more attention is the broadband gap in the state and across the country. As we see firsthand every day, cloud computing and artificial intelligence are reshaping the economy and creating new opportunities for people who can put this technology to use. But it’s impossible to take advantage of these opportunities without access to broadband. Today there are 23.4 million Americans in rural counties who lack broadband access. Many rural communities, especially east of the Cascades, lack adequate broadband. Whether they are parents helping their children with homework, veterans seeking telemedicine services, farmers looking to explore precision agriculture or small business owners wanting to create jobs, people in these communities are at a disadvantage to those living in cities with high-speed connectivity.

The goal of Microsoft’s Airband initiative is to help close this rural connectivity gap by bringing broadband connectivity to 2 million people in rural America by 2022. Through our direct work with partners, we will launch at least 13 projects in 13 states this year, including Washington. We believe the public sector also has a vital role to play, including the investment of matching funds to support capital equipment projects. Today, 11 states have earmarked funds to extend broadband service to their rural communities. But Washington is not one of them.

We hope the legislature will act this year to join the ranks of other states that are acting to advance rural broadband connectivity. Encouragingly, the legislature this year has taken a first step in this direction by recently adopting a capital budget with $5 million in grants for the Community Economic Revitalization Board to support the expansion of rural broadband. However, the bill failed to reach projects addressing the homework gap or providing telemedicine capacity. Legislative leaders have stated they will make supplemental adjustments to the biennial budget in the upcoming weeks. We hope the legislature will continue to pursue a more expansive use of rural broadband funds and will reestablish the Rural Broadband Office in the Department of Commerce. This office would then lead state planning to prioritize and sequence the delivery of high-quality broadband access to unserved and underserved communities.

Advancing the Cascadia Corridor

The legislature can also act in 2018 to build on the growing momentum to advance the Cascadia Corridor. The past year saw several important advances in this area by leaders in Washington, British Columbia and Oregon. This included new education and research partnerships, businesses working more closely together and transportation initiatives, all supported by government leaders across Washington state. Gov. Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine and University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce have all played key leadership roles, which we greatly appreciate.

At the same time, urban congestion is making even more compelling the need to spread economic growth more broadly to more areas around the Puget Sound. One way to do that is to strengthen transportation ties from Vancouver to Seattle to Portland. The ability to move more quickly would help spur growth in places from Bellingham and Anacortes to Tacoma and Olympia, among others.

While we believe there is an important role for future investments in autonomous vehicles and highway improvements to accommodate them, we also believe there are vital steps the legislature can take in another area – high-speed rail. The construction of a high-speed rail connection between Portland and Vancouver, B.C. would be a game changer. An initial high-level report already supports the concept and Gov. Inslee has proposed a more detailed study of potential ridership, routes and financing. We support funding for this additional feasibility analysis, and in light of the recent Amtrak tragedy, urge lawmakers to examine both economic opportunities and public safety requirements.

Other issues

There are three additional issues that deserve continuing attention in Olympia and across the state this year. These are:

  • Immigration. Over the past year, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has emerged as a national leader in addressing the urgent needs of people who have come to our state from other countries. We greatly appreciate the role he and his staff have played in helping to protect our employees, who work for us lawfully and in full compliance with federal laws. As we look ahead, we remain concerned not only about steps taken over the past year but by new steps that could come in the year ahead. These could impact our employees and families, as well as many others across the state. We’re grateful that we live in a state that has an attorney general who is committed to continuing efforts, if needed, to bring these types of issues properly before the courts.
  • Criminal justice system improvements. We hope that officials across the state will continue to build on the steps taken last year in this area. In 2017 the legislature provided $1.2 million in additional funding for the state’s Criminal Justice Training Center (CJTC) to improve situational de-escalation capabilities and build stronger trust between law enforcement and communities. Microsoft is supporting this with a $400,000 investment through 2019 to pilot the Center’s 21st Century Police Leadership program. We’re grateful that CJTC Executive Director Sue Rahr – a nationally recognized expert in policing and a long-time law enforcement leader in our state – is leading this work. We are also working with leaders in our state’s court system to build technology solutions that will help judges improve fairness and just outcomes in legal financial obligations. We look forward to continuing to pursue additional advances in 2018 with a wide range of partners.
  • Net neutrality. Like most tech companies and many consumers, we’re also concerned about the decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to rescind net neutrality rules. We’ve long supported net neutrality rules at the federal level, and we endorsed the FCC’s adoption of strong net neutrality protection in 2015. Given the federal government’s withdrawal of net neutrality protections, we believe it’s appropriate and helpful for the legislature to adopt at the state level the rules that the FCC rescinded. We hope the legislature will include a provision that will sunset these rules automatically if the FCC re-adopts rules that are the same or substantially similar in the future. This would create a long-term incentive for all stakeholders to move net neutrality in the United States back to the place where it can be governed effectively at the national level.

Ending on a very bright note – the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games are coming to Seattle!

Finally, as we contemplate the challenges of our time, there’s one thing we should all get excited about. The Special Olympics USA Games will take place in Seattle. On July 1, 4,000 athletes and coaches from across the country will arrive to compete in 14 sports. They include many remarkable athletes and their families, and it will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.

It will be one of the largest sporting events ever held in Seattle, with more than 50,000 spectators expected. Microsoft is honored to be the presenting sponsor of the games, I’m thrilled to serve as the honorary chair, and we thank (and even salute!) lawmakers for the $3 million in state support, further demonstrating our state commitment to showcasing the power of diversity.

While many of the issues I’ve noted above call for leadership by our legislators and other officials, the Special Olympics provide an opportunity for individual leadership by every one of us. Literally.

The Special Olympics have played a transformative role in the lives of athletes with intellectual disabilities and has become a global movement of acceptance and inclusion. Through sports, health, school and youth engagement, the organization brings people around the world together, with and without intellectual disabilities, to foster tolerance, unity and respect.

I hope you’ll join in to make the USA Games a special moment not only for the athletes and their families, but for all of us who live in Washington state. Please join us at the opening ceremonies on July 1. It will be an event to remember. Or, attend one of the 14 sports events that will take place around Puget Sound. Consider volunteering to help, showing our local hospitality to our visitors while learning more about how we can all learn from each other in new ways.

We also believe the USA Games can provide another opportunity as well. As we prepare for the event, one of the themes we’ve adopted is “Seattle as a city of inclusion.” We’re hoping that local employers will join together not only to encourage employee volunteerism, but to learn more about programs like the one that we’ve benefited from at Microsoft that has helped us recruit, hire and develop some sensational employees who also happen to deal with autism every day. As we’ve learned, talent flourishes all around us, but sometimes we need to look around a bit more broadly to appreciate how we can benefit from it – and how we can help other people along the way.

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As we look to the months ahead, there’s no doubt that 2018 will bring its share of twists, turns, and even challenges. But when we look at what our legislators can accomplish and what the rest of us can contribute, there is no shortage of opportunities. Let’s make the most of them together!

As always, we welcome your thoughts on our ideas.

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