Washington: A Laggard in Prepping for an International Future

By Eric Schinfeld and Sam Kaplan, December 16, 2013, Crosscut

As we speed toward the end of the year and toward yet another state legislative session, the question that’s on our minds is “what will 2014 bring for Washington’s international competitiveness?”

We’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately, especially after last month’s 20th anniversary of the historic Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting, which was held in Seattle in November 1993. That meeting put Washington state on the map as a forward-thinking global leader and brought 15 heads of state, including then-President Bill Clinton, to Seattle to discuss economic integration and multilateral trade.

As a result of the global outlook of our companies and Washington’s role as an international gateway for exports and imports, our state’s economy has grown rapidly over the past 20 years. In that time, Washington businesses like Starbucks and Amazon.com have grown into major global brands and big drivers of state employment. Washington is now one of the most globally engaged states in the United States, with twice the exports per capita compared to the average state, hundreds of organizations doing global health and development work around the world, and 40 percent of jobs tied to trade.

And yet, our state is still not focused on making the most important policy and investment decisions necessary for us to continue to be a globally competitive economic leader. We have the potential to achieve even more in the future than we have over the past 20 years, but only if we work to capitalize on our strengths and opportunities. To do so, our local, state and federal elected officials need to always be thinking about the impact of their decisions on our state’s long-term international competitiveness.

Our state Legislature should take the first step by prioritizing investments that have the highest return, particularly in transportation infrastructure, port development and education. These investments will ensure that Washington has a solid foundation from which to engage in international business, with an efficient and reliable freight mobility system and a highly skilled workforce. Washington’s seaports and airports, which are an essential part of our state’s international success due to their role as a gateway for imports and exports, also must be prioritized so they can expand capacity.

In particular, the state Legislature must pass a comprehensive transportation funding package as soon as possible if lawmakers are serious about sustaining and growing Washington’s economy. Our state’s businesses depend on the ability to quickly and reliably transport goods to and from ports, across the state and to the rest of the country. Washington’s dilapidated roads and bridges and its traffic bottlenecks jeopardize our state’s international and national competitiveness, as companies may choose to locate elsewhere, where it is easier and more affordable to do business.

In addition, our state must be a leading advocate at the federal level on issues that impact our competitiveness. For example, we should rally behind recently introduced legislation to reform the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT), a tax on marine cargo that currently puts Washington at a competitive disadvantage with other U.S. ports. Washington residents must also urge federal policy makers to ensure that current and future international trade agreements increase intellectual property protection, open access to new markets and level the playing field for Washington products.

Finally, we must work to attract productive foreign direct investment (FDI) into our state. Washington’s FDI ranking lags at 22nd among states, and in a recent study by Boston Consulting Group of eight metropolitan peer regions of Greater Seattle, we ranked last. Yet, there are ample opportunities for our state to attract international companies that will employ Washington residents if we invest the time and resources to do so.

For example, on Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent trade mission to China, Bellevue Mayor Conrad Lee signed an agreement with Chinese companies that will result in a Chinese construction and engineering firm opening an office in Bellevue and a Chinese production company producing and shooting a Chinese TV drama in Seattle. In addition, a number of trade organizations signed agreements with their Chinese counterparts to work to increase investments in our region. This kind of investment brings jobs and revenue, but we are clearly not working for it enough.
We must realize that if we do not work hard for our future success through strategic planning, smart choices and the right investments, our economic strength will quickly slip away. We must take nothing for granted; the past 20 years have shown us what we can achieve, and we have a duty to build upon the foundation that has been laid for our future success.

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