Thursday, December 13, 2012

We're No. 3!

And that's not bad at all, when you consider we're talking about a ranking of all 50 states in what the Seattle Times calls "a gold-standard measure of competitiveness:" the 2012 State New Economy Index compiled by The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
Washington "scores high due not only to its strength in software [and] aviation, but also because of the entrepreneurial hotbed of activity that has developed in the Puget Sound region, and heavy use of digital technologies in all its sectors," the report says.
The indicators applied by the institute fall into five categories: knowledge jobs; globalization; economic dynamism; the digital economy; and innovation capacity.
The front-runner once again is Massachusetts, yet it no longer holds the big advantage over the other states that it did just two years ago, in the 2010 Index. Although Washington has slipped from second to third since 2010, the pack -- now led by Delaware -- has closed ground on the leader.
But the broader picture for the nation is not so bright, the report says:

More than three years on from the end of the Great Recession, only six states have regained employment levels enjoyed prior to the recession, and 17 states are still more than 5 percent below their pre-recession employment levels.

The culprit? The report says it's "the decline in the competitiveness of the U.S. economy in the global marketplace." The decline is reflected in a steep drop in manufaturing jobs and investment since 2000.
"For the United States to be competitive," the rerport says, "one key will be to compete more on the basis of innovation and entrepreneurship, and less on cost."

There's plenty in the full report for policymakers to think about as they allocate resources for future economic development.

Read this story in Spanish here.

Applepalooza 2012 exceeds everyone’s expectations

How ya like them apples?
We knew this year's apple crop would be big and we're no strangers to big. A couple of years ago our apple crop was massive: We hit a record 109.3 million 40-pound boxes, which had a $7 billion economic impact on the state. So yeah, when growers realized in August that this year's harvest might come close to the 2010 record despite hail damage in July, they said bring it on!
Except, after last year's farm labor shortage, which forced many to leave fruit on the trees, growers were afraid there might once again not be enough workers to pick the expected 4.3 billion (108 million 40-lb boxes) apples.
But wait, there's more.
In early November, the apple crop estimate for 2012 went up to 121.5 million boxes, clearly beating the previous record. That was huge news and a new milestone for the industry.
But wait, there's more.
This week, even Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission in Wenatchee, was taken aback when he learned the latest estimate for this year's apple crop is 129.7 million boxes!
That's an increase of 20.4 million boxes and 18.6 percent from the industry's prior record.
If anything should get credit for this jump in the last month, that would be the weather. According to Dan Kelly, assistant manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association, thanks to good weather there were more picking days, which meant more fruit could be harvested even with a shortage of pickers. He explained that fruit passed over early was picked later allowing it to grow larger in size, which also contributed to a more bountiful crop.

Read this story in Spanish here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Moving forward on health care reform

It's full steam ahead for Washington state's health exchange after the federal government gave the Washington Healthplanfinder an O.K. earlier this week.

In order for the exchange to be up and running by 2014, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services give conditional approval before January 1, 2013.

Our state is one of only six states to meet this deadline.

House Democrats didn't wait around for the Supreme Court to make their ruling on Obamacare. Last session, we passed legislation to ensure that we'd be ready to make health care more accessible, portable, and affordable once the ACA coverage provisions are implemented.

Our early action has paid off to the tune of more than $150 million in federal funding.

The Washington Healthplanfinder and other reforms are aimed at the largest remaining groups of people without health coverage: young adults, college students, workers at small businesses, the self-employed, and people who can't afford to buy health coverage on the individual market.

The program is designed to make it easier to compare health plans and get a better price for the coverage you want. This effort has been led by House Healthcare and Wellness Committee Chair, Rep. Eileen Cody.

A registered nurse, Rep. Cody said that, "Health coverage is one of the basics. Your family needs a home, food on the table, clothes, health care – it's just fundamental, and our goal with this legislation was to make it easier for every family, rich or poor, to get affordable health care for their loved ones."

Washingtonians with incomes up to 400% of the federal poverty level may qualify for premium financial assistance. Current estimates say that more than 200,000 uninsured residents will now be able to receive benefits.

For more information, visit the Washington Health Benefit Exchange website.

Read this story in Spanish here.

What it means when the governor said 'a major transportation package'

Photo: WSDOT
Gov. Chris Gregoire made news today by proposing a "major transportation package." (Here's the story: Gregoire to propose major transportation package)

What does that mean?

Let's translate that from Olympia speak to English.

Budgets -- There's a transportation budget every year, but that's different. With the usual budget, you basically keep things moving: fixing highways, running the ferries, funding the State Patrol.

Package -- A "major transportation package" is different, and doesn't happen often. The last one was in 2005, and what it does is fund all kinds of projects, big and small, that the regular transportation budget couldn't fund.

Here's what the 2005 "Nickel Package" funded and how the construction work is ramping up and ramping down.

Folks in Olympia call this The Mt. Rainier Slide, because it shows how the Nickel Package cranked up construction jobs, peaked around 2011 to 2013, then slide down back to normal.

Gov. Gregoire is making a simple point: the state population is growing, and more people are driving on the highways and using ferries, buses and trains. Unless we make plans now to get new projects rolling, there's nothing really in the pipeline after these current projects get finished, and that would mean more traffic gridlock.

Read this story in Spanish here.

Congrats to the happy couples!

House Democrats want to congratulate all the happy couples who got hitched, or are planning to get hitched, now that marriage equality is the law in Washington.

We have a slideshow with couples, families, and supporters at Seattle City Hall last Sunday. We’d like to hear your stories and see your photos as well. Send us your #MEDayWA wedding stories or photos and we may feature them on our website.

Read this story in Spanish here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

House Dems approve committees and chairs

Rep. Judy Clibborn chairs Transportation.
Lost in the political news yesterday: the House finalized the committee structure and chairs for the 2013 session. 
Changes include dividing the Ways and Means committee into the Appropriation committee and the Finance committee, and splitting the State Government committee responsibilities into two groups.

Read this story in Spanish here.

Monday, December 10, 2012

21st century careers emphasized in scholarships

New-century industries are clamoring like nobody's business for more graduates in the myriad fields of health care and high technology.  Washington has its work cut out in vying with other states and nations for economic growth and development in these growing - and growing and growing - arenas. So it's good news whenever word comes of stronger financial assistance for college and university students majoring either in some sort of health-care discipline, or in one of the realms of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Created a few years ago, the Washington Opportunity Scholarship program is helping these men and women who want someday to nail down one of these high-demand, big-paying careers. An item in recent Seattle Times report says that in the 2012-2013 school year, "… nearly 1,900 Washington students will get (one of these) $5,000 scholarships to pursue" STEM or health-care degrees. In fact, that amount represents five times the amount of scholarship dollars that selected college and university students have been receiving in these scholarships.

State Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, is singled out in the Times article. Hunter calls this more robust scholarship "terrific," and he goes on to say that, "the IQ of kids isn't determined by their family income - if they can imagine they can go to college, they've got more motivation." 

The scholarship is open to Washington college juniors, seniors and fifth-year students who live here in the Evergreen State, maintain at least a 2.75 GPA, and have a family-income no more than 125 percent of the median-family-income level (no more than $102,200 for a family of four). Interested citizens must send in the Federal Application for Free Student Aid. The newspaper article points out that the "application for new awards will be available on Monday, Jan. 7, and the deadline is Monday, Feb. 18. Students who currently receive the scholarship must renew by July 15." 

You can see from the maximum-income level for applicants that the Washington Opportunity Scholarships are aimed to a great and specific extent at helping students in middle-income families - folks who don't have all the money in the world but who may not qualify for financial-aid programs. These are the students who increasingly are being left with no choice but to plunge into devastating debt to pay soaring tuition tabs. 

A renewable scholarship, this financial assistance can be used for up to five years of college. Further, the Times article states that, "Most of the scholarship money comes from Microsoft and Boeing, which together have contributed $50 million. The state has contributed $5 million." 

House Democrats in the legislative session earlier this year championed additional strategies for increasing access to higher education. Senate Bill 5982 creates the Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation to pursue industry-university research. The objective is creation of a stronger connection between the world's aerospace industry and our state's colleges and universities. Senate Bill 6141 emphasizes support for the continuing education and training of employees. Workers and employers can voluntarily create joint savings accounts to advance their pursuit of 21st century careers. 

When the 2013 legislative session starts in January, expect House Democrats to invest more of this same STEM and health-care educational emphasis on the education and training of students for jobs in these strong, up-and-coming industries.