Competitiveness council resurrected - Locke rebuilds group from various industries to evaluate state's business climate



Olympia, WA - Gov. Gary Locke is reviving his Competitiveness Council made up of business leaders, including Boeing Commercial Airplanes' top guy in Washington, in a bid to help create more jobs in this state.

Locke said he is renewing his Competitiveness Council to look for policy recommendations on the business climate "because we need to do everything we can to focus on job creation and helping people get jobs."

Co-chairpersons include Boeing CEO Alan Mulally, Washington Mutual CEO Kerry Killinger and Seattle lawyer Judith Runstad. A few newcomers include Steve Davis of Corbis, Inc., which is Bill Gates' photo imaging venture.

One new focus of the council, which earlier produced many recommendations that were adopted by the Legislature this year, including a gas-tax increase, is the role of higher education in making the state's business climate more competitive globally and with other states.

"This is not something where you do it once and stop. It's constant evaluation of the status within our state and what more we can do to help people get jobs," Locke said during a Monday press conference at the Capitol. "That's our goal: jobs, jobs, jobs."

In a related matter, Locke expressed support for renewing tax incentives for certain key industries. Locke and lawmakers earlier this year approved more than $3 billion in incentives for Boeing -- on condition the aerospace firm builds its 7E7 manufacturing plant in Washington. But similar tax exemptions for biotech, high-tech and expanded rural manufacturing plants ran into political barriers.

The state's largest small-business lobbying group, the National Federation of Independent Business, was critical of Locke's new effort, saying it does not go far enough to consider the needs of small businesses, especially in the area of easing regulatory burdens.

"My big problem with the Competitiveness Council is they don't have small-business representation and they don't address small-business problems," complained Carolyn Logue, NFIB's state chapter leader. "They need to talk about getting jobs growing in the state's economy, even amongst businesses that may not compete with other states."

Logue said that while it is good to look at how Washington compares to other states or globally for business climate, "no manufacturer is going to look at coming to this state if retail and small businesses around them can't survive."

About 60 percent of the state's private work force is employed by small businesses, defined as having 100 or fewer workers, according to Logue, who believes health-insurance, tort reform and liability-insurance reform should also be addressed.

"I don't have the same concerns," said Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business. "It's something we've advocated for a long time. We certainly felt the work wasn't completed by the Legislature last year."

Locke spokesman Roger Nyhus also disputed Logue's claims, saying that small-business interests are on the new council, including former state Sen. Sid Snyder, a Long Beach Democrat who owns a grocery story, and Nelson Ludlow of Port Townsend-based Mobilisa Inc.

Other members include lawmakers such as House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, Senate Majority Leader Jim West, R-Spokane, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Michael J. Phillips of Frank Russell Co., and Andrea Rinicker of Port of Tacoma.

Locke said his newly formed council, which meets today for the first time in Seattle, would take on some new issues in the area of higher education and work-force training.

Locke said lawmakers adopted 32 recommendations from his first Competitiveness Council. The biggest was a $4 billion-plus package of transportation improvements, fueled by a nickel increase in the state gas tax to 28 cents a gallon.

Another was to lower the unemployment insurance benefits for workers as part of a plan to bring "UI" costs closer in line with other states.

Business issues dealing with the costs of the injured-worker compensation system are expected to be hot issues in the 2004 Legislature.

Another is the tax exemptions issue, which carried a price tag of roughly $100 million. It proved too controversial earlier this year at a time lawmakers also were voting to suspend citizen initiatives giving pay increases to teachers and home-care workers, though Locke expressed support in the next go-round.

But Washington has lost a quarter of its manufacturing jobs since 1998, and some tax exemptions expire next year unless lawmakers re-enact them.

"We're very supportive of having many or most of those (exemptions) renewed," Locke said. "So we're very supportive of those tax incentives, especially if they create jobs."


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