Spokane Journal of Business

Commerce programs expand in scope

Emphasis includes climate, environment

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The new fiscal year is underway, and the Washington state Department of Commerce is ramping up our work strengthening communities with dozens of new programs, additional funding, and partnerships entrusted to us by the Legislature.

Much of our work over the past year and a half was dedicated to pandemic response and recovery. The efforts of our Commerce team spurred more responsibilities and opportunities for us to extend that work as Washington communities continue to rebuild and retool for the future.

Our legislative and policy team is tracking more than 80 new programs across all of the department’s divisions and units. With that comes new faces and team members as we forge ahead with program development, contracting, and implementation. Some highlights include:

Climate and environmental justice. Across Commerce, multiple teams will work to incorporate environmental justice principles in our decision making, ranging from budget development to funding decisions.

Our Energy Division helped lead the complex technical work behind the Healthy Environment for All Act, also known as the HEAL Act. Commerce will play an ongoing role in this transformative mandate, as well as the Climate Commitment Act and the Clean Fuel Standard, helping catapult Washington to the forefront of states tackling climate change.

In addition, the Clean Energy Fund will continue investing to promote innovation and job creation statewide, and our Growth Management Services team will develop guidance to help local governments address climate change and resiliency in their comprehensive plans.

The HEAL Act is one major initiative that Commerce and several other agencies are tasked with implementing. The act is a major piece of environmental justice legislation that, among other things, will elevate outreach and engagement of highly impacted and marginalized communities in projects of significant agency actions.

Equity outreach. Legislators have significantly elevated expectations and support for transformational equity work across state government. Commerce will be implementing nearly 50 provisions that support specific initiatives related to economic development, community building and development, homeownership, asset building, capacity building, and workforce development.

We will engage in community outreach and listening sessions to identify opportunities for opening access to state capital funding for community-centered projects. We’re aided by $5 million in capital funding directed toward addressing barriers to access.

Economic development 

Commerce will administer a fifth round of Working Washington small business assistance grants and deepen strategic investments in regional efforts to advance manufacturing, a central pillar of enduring economic recovery. 

We launched the Small Business FlexFund on June 30, providing flexible working capital—up to $150,000—at favorable loan rates and $138 million in federal funding through the state Small Business Credit Initiative.

We also transitioned the successful pilot Small Business Resiliency Network to an enduring program that helps connect small businesses with culturally competent services and access to opportunity.

Housing and homelessness

Historic investments will help an estimated 80,000 households avoid eviction and pay their rent. In addition to new rental assistance, an increase in document recording fees will dedicate sustainable revenues over time to address homelessness and create permanent supportive housing.

The Housing Trust Fund will administer more than $175 million for affordable housing, including $120 million that will go to local governments and nonprofits to support rapid acquisition of properties for affordable housing.

Other programs will help homeowners keep their homes and avoid foreclosure, provide assistance with utility bills for struggling households, and create a homeownership racial disparities work group to identify and make recommendations to remove barriers to homeownership.

Community services

The state stepped in to fill what is hopefully a temporary gap in federal funding for crime victims’ services administered by the Office of Crime Victims Advocacy. Also, for the first time, OCVA will administer a grant fund for nonprofits to provide reentry services.

The new Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention will administer public safety grants to communities, and we will build on the pioneering work of the Child Care Collaborative Task Force with new funding for minor renovation of child care facilities and promoting regional collaborative partnerships.

Local government infrastructure 

The Public Works Board will implement $129 million for loans that should revolve back to the account over time, as well as an additional federal appropriation for infrastructure.

The capital budget also includes deep investments in behavioral health facilities, early learning facilities, infrastructure for affordable housing and other community facilities administered by Commerce. 

The operating budget sets up work to launch a new multifamily tax exemption program for cities, encourage zoning for emergency shelters more easily in cities, and study the racial impacts of housing.

Broadband

The pandemic shed harsh light on the digital divide, as communities and individuals without access to high-speed internet struggled with everything from work and schoolwork to applying for government assistance and telemedicine.

Washington is now well poised to pursue our state goal of universal access to high-speed internet thanks to extensive local partnership building, mapping and survey work, and historic investments coming soon in broadband infrastructure and digital equity.

Our state Broadband Office has grown from no funding and two employees to now administering more than $400 million in infrastructure funding. 

Combined with funding administered by the Public Works and Community Economic Revitalization boards, we’re connecting unserved rural communities and leveraging additional federal broadband funds.

We will also launch a digital equity program to ensure that where there is infrastructure, communities have meaningful access to devices, subscriptions, and digital skills, and we will continue to support the efforts of public utility districts and other local government entities newly empowered to provide direct retail service to their customers.

Lisa Brown is the director of the Washington state Department of Commerce.

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