Opinion

Lawmakers should avoid ‘tax-first’ debate on budget

Maybe it’s just us, but it seems like we’re hearing more about obstacles facing the state Legislature this year than the many opportunities that lie ahead.

To be sure, there are some big challenges facing lawmakers in the 105-day session, but we remain optimistic that common ground can be found through reasonable, bipartisan solutions.

There is a lot of positive legislative work on which we can build. Working together, the Democratic House and Senate Majority Coalition Caucus reached agreement on a 2013-15 state budget that dedicated $1 billion more to K-12 education and again froze college tuition. This collaboration can be repeated this year.

And, there is good news as the state economy slowly improves. The estimated $2.8 billion growth in tax collections for the 2015-17 budget cycle is one indication of a recovery-in-progress. A full recovery could be in sight if state leaders grasp opportunities that create prosperity in every corner of the state and avoid a “tax-first” debate on the budget.

Last summer, the Association of Washington Business participated in a statewide “Priorities for Prosperity” tour. The goal was to find new ways to fully emerge from the recession.

In our discussions, participants nailed down three core elements needed to reach this goal: a strong focus on education and workforce development, a transportation system that meets the needs of Washington’s employers and residents, and a commitment to statewide job-creation and investment policies.

Education funding and reform will no doubt be front and center in legislative debate. The state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision has put pressure on lawmakers to meet the mandates laid out in statute to fund K-12 basic education to meet the 2018 deadline. In this effort, we see a great opportunity to realign new investments to close the skills gap.

For employers, education is often tied to workforce training. On our tour, we saw that the skills gap – between available jobs and the workforce ready to fill them – is a real and persistent problem. Last year, an estimated 25,000 jobs went unfilled due to the skills gap, and that number is expected to double by 2017. These are good-paying, stable jobs that must be filled and this session offers up the opportunity to address this issue in a meaningful way.

Our transportation needs are growing. As a trade-dependent state, our roads, bridges and ferries are lifelines for the economic health of the state. The governor has proposed a package that relies on a cap-and-tax structure, which we do not support, however we are at the table and believe a thoughtful transportation funding package must be passed in 2015.

Whatever transportation agreement is reached, it must include accountability reforms and prioritize ongoing and new projects that have the greatest positive economic impact for the state. Addressing critical freight corridors, chronic traffic chokepoints and long overdue repairs is essential for the efficient movement of goods and people, makes smart economic sense and allows for new job growth opportunities.

Finally, no matter where a business is located, the resounding message from our tour was that job creation must be central to legislative action. Finding ways to streamline regulations, revamp costly business taxes and continue investments that attract innovation and the jobs that come with it are keys to making Washington more competitive. When businesses can compete in the global marketplace, the state wins with the tax collections and payroll associated with successful employers.

These goals are attainable and, if achieved, would send a strong message to future employers that Washington means business. As we begin the 2015 legislative session, we remain optimistic that reasonable ideas will be met with responsible, bipartisan solutions that create opportunity for all Washingtonians.

Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business. Larry Treleven is vice president and co-owner of Sprague Pest Solutions of Tacoma.

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