The wide-ranging jobs plan Gov. Jay Inslee pitched while running for governor is still a work in progress, but some of his ideas are taking shape at a state agency he dubbed “dysfunctional” on the campaign trail.
Inslee proposed a new agency focused solely on economic development that would coordinate business outreach across state government. Under his plan, the Office of Economic Competitiveness and Development would have an ambassador to each of the industries Inslee saw as economic engines.
That office now exists, even if it’s different from the campaign blueprint in ways both minor – its name transposed into the Office of Economic Development and Competitiveness – and major — it’s housed within the Department of Commerce rather than on its own.
In his race against Republican Rob McKenna, Inslee had proposed pulling apart Commerce, the economic-development, housing and infrastructure agency where he saw too many different missions. Inslee now says the new Commerce director, his former congressional and campaign aide Brian Bonlender, is moving “to make the agency more nimble” and help economic innovators.
“In general, what we’re doing is putting a higher-level focus on the job-creation (piece) of the Commerce Department,” Inslee said in an interview.
The Democratic governor said Thursday that he would need legislators’ agreement to divide the agency and that he has bigger fish to fry in the Legislature’s ongoing special session but might return to the idea.
Inslee can expect interest from Republican Sen. John Braun, who chairs the Senate Committee on Economic Development. Braun said he too is inclined toward splitting off a separate agency to focus solely on that topic.
In the meantime, Bonlender is pushing to consolidate and restructure the agency. An executive director for the economic development office arrived last week: Richard Locke, founder of a succession of energy and technology startups.
Bonlender also has promoted Mary Trimarco to assistant director for business services at Commerce. He said the organizational reshuffling consolidates some top positions and will not increase spending on management.
Another proposed consolidation brings together Commerce and Innovate Washington, a less than 2-year-old agency with a nonprofit arm that allows it to raise private money. The House budget plan written by Democrats agreed to a merger, while the Republican-flavored Senate budget simply proposed cutting Innovate Washington. The agency’s board has raised questions about both options.
Bonlender said the two agencies overlap, such as when both started working on landing one of the manufacturing hubs that President Barack Obama touted in this year’s State of the Union address.
The CEO of Innovate Washington, Kim Zentz, disputed that they overlap much but said they would work together regardless of what the Legislature chooses. Both are trying to bring a federal testing facility for unmanned aircraft – or drones – to Moses Lake and other Washington locations.
OUTREACH TO INDUSTRIES
In keeping with Inslee’s strategy of focusing on specific economic sectors, Bonlender hopes to have “sector leads” for the aerospace, agriculture, clean-technology, life-sciences, maritime, information-technology and advanced-manufacturing industries, along with the military.
Neither House nor Senate included money for their salaries, but Inslee said he would keep pushing. Some of the money would come from the private sector while some sectors would be led by existing officials at other agencies.
“The whole idea behind having these sector leads is we have somebody that wakes up in the morning every day thinking about what it takes to make our state competitive in these industries,” Bonlender said.
For example, he said, a military sector lead could have been working recently to help Spokane area community leaders and the governor’s office in an ongoing effort to relocate residents of an area near the Fairchild Air Force Base runway, making the base more appealing to the Pentagon. The Air Force chose a base in Kansas, instead of Fairchild, as the home for its new KC-46A refueling tankers.
The sector strategy is a recognition, Bonlender said, that “we can’t rely on the next Bill Gates to land in our laps and create a bunch of jobs.”
GOP campaign rhetoric was critical of industry-specific strategies as picking winners and losers. But Braun said the sectors Inslee is proposing capture the breadth of the state’s economy and are a move in the right direction.
One hurdle, though: Legislative Republicans tend to favor easing regulations on companies over new outreach to them.
“To go too far down that path till you do real work on business climate, I think is not a wise use of taxpayer money,” said Braun, of Lewis County, who cited workers’ compensation costs as a factor in companies’ decisions.
But he and Inslee agreed the state can do both. The governor said he was on the phone Wednesday with environmental agencies to help a company that has a permitting problem standing in the way of expansion, while his Department of Ecology is working on streamlining permitting through lean-management techniques.
Lean management, which focuses on cutting out waste in business practices and is another staple of Inslee’s campaign, is also being applied agency-wide at Commerce.
Braun said he’s committed to working with Bonlender, but the new director was grilled at a confirmation hearing for his mostly public-sector and campaign experience by Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner of Spokane. Baumgartner said later that his constituents and others saw Bonlender’s appointment as “a political payoff.”
“I’d be surprised,” Bonlender said in reaction to those comments, “if anybody wanted to make economic development a partisan issue.”