Earlier this year, I shared Microsoft's 2019 Washington state legislative priorities as part of our practice to engage constructively on important regional issues. Since then, a lot has happened, and I thought it was a good time to provide an update on where we landed on the issues we feel are important for the future of the state.
Washington made some great strides this session on issues like higher education funding, affordable housing and rural broadband - but some important initiatives, including the adoption of consumer data privacy protections, did not get completed and will need to be addressed in the next session.
Recession-proofing higher education funding
In March, I joined University of Washington president Ana Mari Cauce and Wayne Martin, vice chair of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges in a Seattle Times opinion column that laid out why this was the right time to establish a dedicated funding source for public higher education.
Fortunately, lawmakers, led by Rep. Drew Hansen, agreed and made a $1.2 billion commitment to prepare Washington students and workers for Washington jobs over the next six years. These are new and dedicated funds for higher education institutions and state-funded student financial aid programs to supplement, not supplant, other federal, state and local higher education funding.
Why is this important? Because, historically, higher education has sustained significantly larger cuts than K-12 schools, criminal justice, and other general fund spending categories during economic downturns. By establishing a dedicated fund, the bill reduces the potential impact of general fund budget cuts.
Another important element of the legislation is that funds will go where they are needed most, with the costs borne by those who benefit the most from higher education. Over the next two years, more than $160 million will be directly invested into the futures of Washington students to create the Washington College Grant (WCG) program, a need-based financial aid program for students from low- and moderate-income families. The WCG will close the waiting list for the existing State Need Grant, which it replaces, within those two years. Students enrolled in qualifying post-secondary education and training programs qualify for grants based on income, with full tuition and fees provided for those at 55 percent or less of the median family income level (approximately $50,000 or less for a family of four), and smaller grants pro-rated for income levels up to the state median (approximately $90,000 for a family of four).
In addition to this important new resource, critical additional funding will flow to high-demand degree programs, from engineering and math programs at UW, to teacher education at Central Washington University, to nursing education at our state's community and technical colleges.
What's next: Microsoft remains committed to doing our part. The highest surcharges will be paid by advanced computing businesses with worldwide gross revenues in excess of $100 million such as Amazon and Microsoft. We consider it an investment in the future of our state.
Expanding affordable housing options
An equally important investment, announced about the time the Legislature was getting underway, is Microsoft's $500 million commitment to expanding affordable housing options in the Puget Sound region.
When we made that announcement, we shared our belief that substantial public, private and non-profit resources will be needed to make our communities more welcoming to a diverse range of local residents. Investments must be made not only to combat chronic homelessness, but also to create affordable middle-income housing opportunities for teachers, emergency responders, nurses and many others who contribute to the health and social fabric of the entire community.
With that in mind, we advocated for the state to almost double its direct public investment in affordable housing in the 2019-21 capital budget. Ultimately, lawmakers settled on an appropriation of $175 million to the Housing Trust Fund, a substantial increase over the $110 million included in recent budget cycles, more proportionate to the scale of the problem. We applaud everyone in Olympia who worked to make this outstanding commitment to affordable housing.
We also were encouraged by passage of legislation to modernize Washington statutes on condominium liability, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law on April 30. The reforms in that legislation will eliminate barriers and stimulate new private development of affordable housing options for the middle-income market.
What's next: We will continue to work in partnership with policymakers, business organizations, nonprofits and community groups on this pressing issue. It's up to all of us to promote inclusive and vibrant communities in our region through affordable housing. We look forward to continued dialogue and collective action.
Protection of data and personal privacyAt Microsoft, we believe privacy is a fundamental human right. Technology plays an increasingly important role in our lives. But while technology is a tool that creates exciting new opportunities, people need to have assurance their data is protected and they can control it. At a time when other states and even other countries are strengthening their laws, we believe Washingtonians deserve world-class protections.
That's why we strongly supported legislation introduced by Sen. Reuven Carlyle to protect the data and privacy of Washington consumers. Carlyle's bill would have given Washingtonians a new level of control over their personal data while also allowing innovation to continue.
The movement to strengthen consumer privacy was advanced when this bill passed the Senate on a strong, bipartisan vote of 46-1; the privacy updates it would have ushered in were an important and meaningful step in the right direction. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case in state and federal legislative bodies, political considerations ultimately got in the way of action and the bill did not pass the Legislature.
What's next: Despite the Legislature's failure to successfully address the issue, privacy concerns aren't going away. Data privacy remains critically important for the people of Washington. We are committed to working with legislative leaders and other stakeholders to address the barriers to passage that emerged this session so that we can improve prospects for passage next year.
Creating additional opportunities in rural areas
As technology's pervasive presence in our work and family lives increases the need for a regulatory framework to protect personal privacy, it also makes it more critical that all members of our society have access to the new opportunities created through innovation.
Unfortunately, in Washington and across the country, too many people living in rural areas lack access to the broadband communication infrastructure necessary to fully participate in our digital economy.
We believe bringing broadband to rural areas is as important today as the electrification of rural America was decades ago, which is why we launched the Microsoft AirBand Initiative to deliver high-speed internet access to more than 3 million additional rural Americans by July 4, 2022.
I'm pleased to see the state is continuing its commitment to expanding economic opportunities in every corner of our state with a $21.5 million appropriation to provide loans and grants for expanding broadband access in rural areas, as well as operating funds for a new State Broadband Office to be located within the Department of Commerce.
What's next: Microsoft will continue to pursue strategic investments and support public policies to bring broadband access to all Washingtonians.
High-speed rail connections
Washington, Oregon and British Columbia have an opportunity to stake out a stronger position as leaders in the global economy through the continued development of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor. Through coordination and collaboration we can create greater opportunities and establish ourselves as a global center of innovation and trade. Together, Seattle, Vancouver and Portland can expect to accomplish so much more than would ever be possible individually. By shrinking travel times between major Pacific Northwest anchor cities, high-speed rail will open the door for stronger relationships and new employment and entrepreneurship opportunities within and across communities.
We know establishing a massive public infrastructure project is no small feat and requires ironing out all manner of multi-jurisdictional and multi-national details. But I'm encouraged to see that the initial feasibility studies of high-speed rail in the Cascadia corridor have come back positive.
Given the long development times involved, it's important to begin initial work as soon as possible to secure financing and governance structures needed to make this incredible service a reality.
The transportation budget adopted by the Legislature will provide another $242,000 in state funding to continue this critical development work. However, it makes the appropriation contingent on $671,000 first being raised from private and local sources. Although we appreciate their continued support of the planning and development process, we also believe that Washington state lawmakers should have made a more significant, non-conditional commitment to support this game-changing service. The fact is, Washington is the largest economy among the three regions, and we stand to gain substantially from the development of the Cascadia corridor. Our state should be stepping up to take a lead role.
What's next: Microsoft will continue to work to secure the funding needed for state engagement and will work with private and public sector partners to host a conference focused on high-speed rail.
The conversation continues
Over this last legislative session, Microsoft advocated in Olympia for expanded computer science education options in K-12 schools, for strengthening companies' legal responsibilities in the event of a data breach, and for furthering Washington's commitment to carbon-free electricity generation in the years ahead.
We believe that as a major employer in the state, it's our job to keep the lines of communication open, keep engaging on the important issues, and most of all, keep creating economic opportunities that improve the quality of life for Washington state residents.
Tags: affordable housing, Brad Smith, data privacy, education, Next Generation Washington