Gregoire: ‘A’ for lawmakers

In Vancouver, upbeat governor praises them for rising to challenge during tough session

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Gov. Chris Gregoire, speaking Thursday to an audience of technology executives in Vancouver, gave the 2011 Legislature an “A” grade for tackling state government reform on several fronts during a session she described as the most challenging in 80 years.

In a surprisingly upbeat speech to business leaders from throughout the metro area gathered at Washington State University Vancouver, Gregoire marketed Washington as a state with a vibrant, growing economy poised to compete in the global market.

Most people didn’t give the Legislature much chance of success when it convened in January with the task of closing a $5.1 billion budget deficit without raising taxes, the governor said.

But lawmakers from both parties surprised everyone with their tenacity and willingness to compromise and take hard votes, she said. They tackled high unemployment insurance premiums, reformed workers’ compensation and addressed unfunded liabilities in the state pension fund.

“They took votes they never expected to take,” she said.

Those reforms already are benefitting businesses, the governor said. The hard-fought workers’ compensation reform bill, negotiated in the final days of the session, will save the state an estimated $1.1 billion over the next four years by getting people back to work quickly, keeping rate increases down and putting the program on a sustainable basis, she predicted.

Washington’s public employee pension system is now among the most stable in the nation, she said, and its unemployment insurance program is on solid ground while similar programs in other states face bankruptcy.

Gregoire was bullish on job creation, too.

“I am very confident we have added 40,000 private sector jobs in the past year,” she said, and that’s just the beginning. Boeing Co. is expected to add 11,000 jobs as a result of landing a $30 billion contract with the Pentagon to build aerial refueling tankers, she said, and Insitu, the Bingen-based Boeing subsidiary that manufactures unmanned aircraft, recently landed a $44 million contract with the Defense Department. Amazon and Microsoft are also adding jobs.

The downside, she said, is that 18,000 employees of state government and local school districts have lost their jobs during the recession, and another 4,000 may join the ranks of the jobless as a result of cuts in the 2011-13 budget. Those jobs won’t come back quickly, she said, because typically “state government lags two years behind the private sector” in rebounding from an economic recession.

One hard but necessary choice lawmakers made this session was that “if people want to use some services, they’re going to have to pay for them,” she said.

Users of state parks and other state-owned lands will have to pony up $30 for an annual Discover Pass or pay each time they visit. Owners of adult family homes will now pay for licensing and oversight of their businesses.

On the topic of education, Gregoire said the new budget protects early childhood education, but cuts teacher salaries in K-12 schools and will likely result in increased class sizes.

At the college level, “we decided to give four-year institutions the flexibility to raise tuition,” she said. That provides institutions with the ability to protect faculty and programs.

“You can’t take an institution like this, cut its quality” and assume that damage can easily be undone, she said. And as painful as four years of double-digit tuition increases will be for students, she said, Washington’s state colleges and universities still charge some of the lowest tuition rates among a group of peer schools across the nation.

In her talk to technology leaders, and in an earlier session with high school leaders from several Clark County school districts, Gregoire stressed that quality education is the key to keeping Washington’s economy competitive in the global marketplace and assuring that today’s students will be able to enjoy a middle-class life.

To meet the future demand for workers in the technology field and other high-skilled jobs, she said, Washington’s education system must graduate 6,000 more students by 2018, of whom 2,000 should be graduates in science, math and technology, and 19 percent should be in underrepresented groups, including the poor and racial minorities.

She proposed to turn the senior year of high school into a “launch year,” when students not ready for college, trade school or the workplace can get the help they need, while more advanced students can get a head start on earning college credits.

“We’ll track students, track enrollment, get kids graduated. We expect colleges to be innovative.,” she said.

Earlier in the day, in a session with student leaders from 17 high schools in Southwest Washington, Gregoire was asked how budget cuts will affect arts electives, the Running Start program that allows high school students to earn college credit, and the Washington State School for the Blind, among other programs. She urged students not to be discouraged by cuts in school funding.

“Get as much education as you possibly can,” she said. “Be smart about it. I’m actually quite optimistic for you because of the new, innovative programs that are coming your way.”

Asked in an interview with The Columbian what is fueling her optimism, Gregoire said, “If you look around the country, this state is handling the recessionary period as well as any state. I predict Wall Street will take notice of the things we have done” and reward the state with the highest bond rating possible, she said.

“Five years from now, people will be saying this was a historic legislative session.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.