Spokane-area business advocates say that as the next Washington state legislative session nears, their top priorities will include more than $302 million in capital projects, and theyll be seeking funding for job-training programs, health-care research, and education. In addition, theyll be urging legislators to find solutions to rising health-care costs.
Business leaders here are hopeful that key regional legislators in powerful leadership posts will help further the agenda of Spokane and Eastern Washington.
We have an advantage of having the Senate Majority Leader (Lisa Brown), says Rich Hadley, CEO of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce. We work closely with her, and its good when youve got the Senate majority leader who sees our priorities as among her priorities.
Business leaders here also hope that Spokane Rep. Timm Ormsby, who is vice chairman of the house capital budget committee, will push for the projects they advocate.
Meanwhile, business advocates are waiting to see whether lawmakers will be in a generous mood as they consider how to use an expected budget surplus of roughly $1.9 billion.
(Legislators) are looking at the surplus very carefully, and theyre going to be cautious about spending, says Don Brunell, president of the Olympia-based Association of Washington Business. They know that the economy is doing well, but its also very fragile.
A hot housing market statewide and healthy sales-tax revenue from construction-materials sales have produced an unanticipated additional nearly $2 billion in revenue for the current 2005-2007 biennium, Brunell says. The Legislature and Gov. Christine Gregoire approved the budget for the biennium in early 2004 based on lower projections. Yet, as the housing market shows signs of cooling, Brunell says lawmakers must consider the possibility of an economic downturn as they write the budget for the 2007-2009 biennium.
Were due to have a slowdown, so that tells us we have to be very careful, he says.
Gregoire has said she wants to maintain appropriate reserves, but also says she wants to use some of the surplus for additional education and health-care outlays. Hadley says that although the surplus would be used for the states operating budget, not the capital budget, business leaders here hope Gregoires emphasis on education, health care, and social and human services will help secure funding for a number of capital projects here.
The chamber takes a bottom-up approach to developing its lobbying agenda by meeting with businesses, other business groups, educational institutions, and others to hear their priorities for the upcoming legislative session, Hadley says. The chamber then draws up a strategy based on the comments it has received from those interest groups, and its own goals, he says.
Among the top priorities in the higher-education arena is securing $110.5 million for Community Colleges of Spokane (CCS), including a planned $32.9 million technical-education building at Spokane Community College. Other projects for CCS include a new $29.8 million chemistry and life-sciences building for Spokane Falls Community College, and another $21.9 million project at that campus that would include two new buildings to house the early learning center and the Headstart child-care center.
Interest groups here also will seek funding for construction of a new $10.8 million classroom building at Eastern Washington University, in Cheney, and a $58 million biotechnology-life sciences research facility at Washington State Universitys campus in Pullman.
Community capital-budget requests business leaders are advocating include $3 million for the first phase of the planned Armed Forces Aerospace Museum, $6.75 million for the Mobius science and technology center, $2 million for the Fox Theater restoration project, and $5 million for the planned consolidation of the YMCA and YWCA into new facilities.
Business advocates also will ask legislators to fund a $1 million renovation of the Northeast Community Center here and renovations at the Spokane Valley Community Center. Also being sought for Spokane Valley is a park at Mirabeau Point that would be accessible to children with disabilities.
A top local priority in the transportation arena will be the north-south freeway project. The business community also will lobby for funding of the next phase of the Interstate 90 widening project and the Bridging the Valley bistate project intended to eliminate about 75 at-grade railroad crossings in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. Business leaders here will look to recently elected Chris Marr, a former member of the states transportation commission to push for those projects, especially if he is assigned to the Senate transportation committee.
In addition, business leaders have added to the transportation agenda this year whats being called the Inland Pacific Hub project, which would expand and integrate the regions transportation system. Business advocates are seeking $250,000 for a feasibility analysis to study the economic impact of that planned effort to optimize transportation links and future transportation improvements to move shipments with maximum efficiency and obtain maximum economic-development benefit. Federal and state money also are being sought.
In the work-force training and economic-development arena, the business community will push hardest for funding for the expansion of the University of Washingtons medical and dental education programs in Spokane, Hadley says. That $25 million request would fund slots for 20 first-year medical students, eight first-year dental students, and 15 doctoral nursing students.
This is a very important element of what weve been advocating, which is that Spokane has a $4 billion health-care industry and is a center for health sciences research, Hadley says.
Business advocates also will stump for diverting some sales-tax money that otherwise would go to the state for the proposed Institute for Systems Medicine here. That step would generate roughly $6.5 million a year toward that entitys goal of enhancing a systems-based, or genome-based, approach to medicine here.
In addition, business leaders will ask for $6 million to support the Applied Sciences Laboratory research facility here, and at least $10 million for the statewide Job Skills Program for the coming biennium.
The chamber and the Spokane Area Economic Development Council, which are set to merge early next year, are jointly lobbying for increased funding for local economic-development organizations across the state. The Edmonds, Wash.-based Washington Economic Development Association (WEDA) is heading that effort, which would increase the Spokane EDCs allotment of annual state funding to $1 per capita, or $435,600 total, compared with the $20,000 it receives currently, says Joe Tortorelli, president-elect at WEDA and a retired economic-development executive for Spokane-based Avista Corp. Funding for each economic-development organization would be capped at $500,000 a year, he says.
Funding for mental health is a main topic on business advocates health-care agenda, as Spokane-area hospitals are incurring more costs to care for uninsured mental-health patients, Hadley says. Meanwhile, business representatives support Spokane-based Inland Northwest Health Services proposal to add Eastern and Western State hospitals to its electronic medical records network to provide for more streamlined care.
Also, business advocates will lobby for money for a grant program the Legislature established last session to provide funding for community-based providers of health care for the uninsured, including a number of organizations in this region.
Business leaders will track closely efforts made by Gregoires Blue Ribbon Commission on Health Care to address the rising costs of employer-provided health-care plans, which are resulting in a loss of coverage for many workers.
The AWBs Brunell says the AWB also has listed health-care spending as one of the main issues it will monitor this session. While the AWB will push legislators to find solutions to rising health-care costs, it doesnt want measures that would seek to do that by raising health-insurance rates for small businesses, he says.
(Legislators) will have to make sure to put in measures that control costs, but were hoping they dont do any damage to things that are working, Brunell says.
AWB also will pitch for investing more money in math and science programs at the secondary and higher-education levels. High-school students often stop taking classes in those subjects after passing the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) test, and as a result dont have the math and sciences skills necessary for getting jobs or graduating from college, he asserts.
The group also plans to advocate spending more money for work-force training programs that focus on critical need areas such as engineering, health-care, construction, and computer science, which are projected to be hindered by shortages of workers in coming years, he says.
Gary Livingston, chancellor and CEO of the Community Colleges of Spokane, says the community college district will seek state funding this session for programs aimed at high-demand students, who are training to enter fields such as nursing and engineering. It also will ask for money for its science and math transition programs and its adult literacy program, Livingston says.
Meanwhile, the Olympia-based Washington Association of Realtors has said it will push the Legislature this session to address what it sees as a statewide shortage in affordable housing. The group supports the creation of a growth management infrastructure account that would help local governments pay for infrastructure improvements to encourage residential growth. It also wants legislators to find ways to make sure theres enough developable land to accommodate housing needs based on population growth projections.
Contact Emily Brandler at (509) 344-1265 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Subscribe today to our free E-Newsletters!SUBSCRIBE