Op-ed: Legislature Must Invest to Keep Washington State Competitive

By Eric Schinfeld and Sam Kaplan, December 30, 2012, Seattle Times

As the Washington Legislature begins to look at how to close yet another budget gap, our elected officials are considering what investments and policy decisions will create the most jobs and grow our state’s economy. One thing is clear: We must invest in Washington state’s competitiveness in the global marketplace.

The Washington Council on International Trade and the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle recently released the International Competitiveness Strategy for Washington State, which found that trade is the largest driver of Washington’s economy. Trade accounts for at least 40 percent of our state’s jobs. That’s up from one-in-three jobs in the late 1990s.

Interestingly, this success through trade has come less from a purposeful state strategy and more from a mix of luck, individual business efforts and various government initiatives. We can and must do better.

The International Competitiveness Strategy argues that our state government must take the lead in building an infrastructure and business climate that will enhance Washington’s status as a leader in the global marketplace. While many trade policies are set at the federal level, our state government plays a crucial role in maintaining and growing Washington’s international competitiveness.

The Legislature can make the critical investments and policy changes necessary to ensure that Washington is a great place for international commerce, helping to draw international companies to our state, improving freight mobility and port capacity, attracting foreign tourism and ensuring a globally competitive workforce.

Today’s difficult economic climate requires that scarce resources be targeted where they will yield the greatest return on investment. Because international trade underpins so much of our economic success, we must make programs and policies that increase our international competitiveness our top priority.

Unfortunately, the Legislature generally has not prioritized our state’s international competitiveness. Vital highway projects that would significantly improve freight mobility and access to ports are without funding. Our colleges and universities — which not only train a global workforce but attract more than $450 million a year from foreign students — are underfunded. And our state’s ability to market itself to foreign investors, tourists and potential customers of Washington businesses has been slashed. For example, we are now the only state in the country without state tourism funding. We cannot afford to neglect these crucial elements of our trade-based economy.

As legislators convene in January, we need to remind them how important it is to support policies that create a vibrant business and international trade climate. We need a comprehensive transportation package that includes investments in key freight-mobility projects, greater funding of our higher-education system and new resources for promoting our state and its businesses to the rest of the world.

People refer to Washington as the most trade-dependent state in the nation because they know our businesses, both large and small, rely on customers in markets the world over. Whether it’s a Bothell company selling medical devices in China, a Yakima farmer exporting apples to Russia, a Brazilian tourist at the Skagit Tulip Festival or an IT company developing applications downloaded in Southeast Asia, international trade truly benefits every part of our state.

We need to recognize the benefits of trade and act accordingly; our competitors throughout the U.S. and the world certainly do. If we do not invest today to build and sustain the key elements of our trade economy, we will lose the business opportunities and prosperity of tomorrow.

Washington companies provide innovative, high-quality goods and services that are in demand around the world. Washington’s international competitiveness is our greatest economic strength. The Legislature must realize its key role in maintaining this asset, and take the necessary steps to support it.

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