Spokane Journal of Business

2001 Legislature: challenging

Business groups seek funds for projects that would boost technology-based economy

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The Washington Legislatures 2001 session already is shaping up to be a challenging one in the face of a tight state budget and a nearly equal split of power between Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Spokane business groups will be there in the fray, lobbying for funds for expenditures that they hope will boost growth of technology businesses and spur other improvements here. Meanwhile, statewide business organizations will be looking for some regulatory reformsincluding the review of ergonomics rules, unemployment law, and the Growth Management Actthat could improve Washingtons business climate.

Its going to be an ugly, ugly session, says Richard Davis, president of the Washington Research Council, a Seattle-based public policy think tank.

The Legislature will face the tightest general-fund budget since Initiative 601 spending limits were adopted in 1993, Davis says. According to the formula set out in I-601, the states general-fund budget can grow $1.2 billion over the coming biennium. The cost-of-living increases mandated for school employees in newly approved Initiative 732 will eat up about $400 million, and expected increases in the cost of ordinary state operations likely will push the budget most of the rest of the way to that $1.2 billion limit, Davis says.

Its going to be a pretty challenging budgetary climate, says Dan Kirschner, the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerces public affairs director. The situation will require working together closely to achieve anything this session.

He believes, however, that a slate of projects the chamber will be advocating in the coming session will have widespread support in the Spokane community, and that united voice will be heard.

If there was a theme assigned to these projects, it would be enhancing the regions environment for fostering a technology-based economy, Kirschner says.

Leading the list of technology-related funding requests the regional chamber will support are ones from the Inland Northwest Technology Education Center (INTEC), Eastern Washington University, and Washington State University, he says. The Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerces legislative agenda includes the same projects, although that group is still polling its members on what its top priorities will be, says Jessica Dennis, the Valley chambers legislative liaison.

INTEC, a young group aimed at training workers in emerging technologies, will ask for $3.3 million, says Kim Pearman-Gilman, an Avista Development executive who is heading the INTEC effort. About $1.5 million of that amount would be used to develop the centers programs, including three training programs on information-technology topics and two on biotechnology next year, she says. Roughly $1.8 million would be used for equipping an INTEC training center in the proposed Washington state Eastern Regional Archives building here if that project is funded. If the archives project doesnt go forward, the funds would be used for designing a separate INTEC facility, she says.

EWU has requested $22.6 million for design and construction of a project to transform Cheney Hall into a state-of-the-art facility for its computer-science and technology programs.

WSU is seeking $3 million for salaries for additional biotech-focused faculty members, including a biomedical development coordinator at the universitys Spokane campus. WSU also has requested an additional $3 million for a technology initiative that would support work in the genomics of reproduction, plant genomics, and advanced wood composites.

Funding for SIRTI

The regional chamber also will advocate continued state funding for the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute (SIRTI), Kirschner says.

Both it and the Valley chamber will voice support for continued development at Mirabeau Point, an 83-acre multiuse community area in the Spokane Valley. Mirabeau Point Inc., the nonprofit corporation thats developing the project, is seeking $7 million for a 38,000-square-foot multiuse building.

A training center near Spokane Community College that would include an Army National Guard armory and space for law-enforcement officer and firefighter training is seeking funds and will garner chamber support.

The Spokane chamber also supports requests to the Legislature for operational funding for the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture (formerly the Cheney Cowles Museum) and money for the Spokane Symphonys planned renovation of the Fox Theater downtown.

Securing money for road building and maintenance also is a priority for business groups in Spokane.

Groups here hope the state will continue to fund the long-awaited north-south freeway, which is now being called the North Spokane Corridor project; continued work on Interstate 90, especially in the Spokane Valley; and efforts in the Valley to improve freight mobility and increase traffic safety by eliminating grade-level railroad crossings.

The state Department of Transportation will ask for at least $16 million for design, right-of-way purchases, and the start of construction on the North Spokane Corridor project, and might request as much as $60 million for that project, says DOT spokesman Al Gilson. Ongoing construction on I-90 will require about $18.6 million, he says.

There is a need for substantial transportation investment and new revenue sources, says Davis, at the research council. He says businesses likely will support the recommendations of the governors Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation for transportation improvements across the state, but may be wary of some of the potential revenue sources the commission suggests. That panel proposed late last month that legislators consider a gas-tax increase, a sales tax on gas purchases, a per-mile fee for motorists, toll roads and bridges, and a fee solo motorists could pay to use car-pool lanes.

The Association of Washington Businesses (AWB) recognizes the need for new revenues for road construction, but also wants to streamline the permitting process for road projects and to trim the costs of mitigation work, AWB President Don Brunell says.

In addition to promoting transportation improvements, Washington business organizations have targeted regulatory reforms that might enhance the states business climate.

Regulatory relief isnt costly and can allow the economy to grow, says Davis.

The ergonomics rule adopted this spring by the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries tops several organizations lists of regulations needing legislative attention. The rule, which aims to reduce the number of muscular and skeletal injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and back strain, suffered by workers will be difficult and costly to enact, Brunell says.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) is calling for the Legislature to tell L&I that it doesnt have the authority to create rules, and only should be able to offer technical assistance and training on ergonomics issues, says Carolyn Logue, NFIBs state director.

The recently adopted Washington state Department of Ecology shoreline-management rules are another set of administrative regulations that face opposition from business organizations.

In response to both the ergonomics and shoreline rules, Davis suggests that the Legislature should make sure administrative departments dont make rules that arent subject to legislative review.

The states Growth Management Act also deserves a look from the Legislature, Davis contends. He says the growth-management regulations have increased the cost to develop land in the state and have stifled economic growth.

In the ongoing struggle to ensure that health care is affordable and available, the NFIB is calling for review of the health-care benefits the state requires employers to provide. The benefits have been in place long enough we should be able to see if they work, Logue says. Benefits that increase employers cost of doing business without helping people obtain care should be eliminated, she says.

The states unemployment insurance program also needs attention because it doesnt conform to federal standards, says the AWBs Brunell. Unless simple changes are made in the policy regarding educational workers eligibility for unemployment benefits, the federal government can decertify the states program, he says. If the program were decertified, Washington employers wouldnt be allowed to take a federal tax credit that helps reduce their unemployment insurance costs, he says. Losing the credit could cost businesses in the state more than $1 billion collectively in additional federal taxes, he says.

Business groups also will be looking for property-tax relief, the repeal of the personal-property tax that affects small businesses, and breaks for small businesses from the states business and occupation (B&O) tax.

Its going to be a difficult budget year with everyone asking for money, Logue says. We may get shut down. I hope we can make enough of a case for small business.

  • Anita Burke

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