Washington State Wire – By Erik Smith. The Washington Roundtable has given the state a second report card, and you can definitely say there's room for improvement. The state has slipped in key measures regarding education, it remains toward the bottom of the heap when it comes to transportation, and business taxes are among the highest in the country. That's according to the Roundtable's "Benchmarks for a Better Washington," a rather ambitious statistical grading project the group launched last year. But the state gets high marks in other categories. Among other things, Washington has moved into the top-ten states in the country for private sector job growth. "We clearly have some work to do," says Roundtable President and CEO Steve Mullin. The Roundtable is the state's leading business association for large private-sector employers.
The benchmarks project, now in its second year, is rather different than the "report cards" frequently issued by the associations and advocacy groups active in the state's public arena. Most of those are really a subjective assessment of whether the Legislature did right or wrong in passing or opposing legislation, and they are measured against that group's particular position. Instead, the Roundtable's benchmarks take publicly available statistical data and measure Washington's performance against the other 49 states. The idea is to show how the state is doing nationally, over time – whether it is slipping or improving.
Playing Well With Others
There is a subjective element, of course. The Roundtable chose the statistics it wanted to measure. But most would agree that they are among the key indicators of the state's economic health, Mullin argues. They measure things like quality of education, the condition of roads and bridges, and business tax burden. The report keeps it simple, by comparing against other states. The Roundtable argues that Washington ought to be one of the nation's 10-best performers in each category. So not only should it play well with others, it ought to be above average in every respect.
Mullin says the Roundtable hopes the measurements will become an element in the political debate in Olympia. "Partly because it has taken us such a long time to emerge from the 2008 downturn, we felt that Washington needed a common vision for economic vitality, and we felt the Roundtable could help by putting out what its vision was for the future and then have a vision for measuring it," Mullin said. "We went through a process of looking at all sorts of areas of measurement and decided that we really wanted to get down to a discrete few. If you have 100 benchmarks, it is sort of hard trying to come to a particular conclusion. So we went through a pretty deliberate process of narrowing it down to what our board thought were the most important ones, and we got down to 12."
So how's the state doing? For the first time, it's possible to see progress – both the positive and negative sort.
12 Key Indicators
- Washington ranks 5th in the number of patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. That's down slightly from last year, when it ranked fourth, but Washington is still among the top 10.
- Washington ranks 8th in private-sector job growth. That's up from 15th last year.
- Washington ranks 37th in high school graduation rates. That's down from 35th last year.
- Washington misses the mark on student math and science scores – and here a word of explanation is in order. The Roundtable is comparing performance of 8th-grade students on the National Assessment of Student Progress (NAEP), which some have called the "Nation's Report Card." On last year's tests 40 percent of students ranked "proficient" or better, putting the state in a four-way tie for 12th place. Last year, based on 2009 results, the state ranked 9th. No new data was available for science scores, so the state continues to rank 21st.
- Washington ranks 38th per capita in the number of bachelor's degrees awarded by the state's public and private higher education institutions. It has slipped from 35th.
- Washington continues to rank first in the nation for lowest electricity rates, due largely to cheap hydropower.
- Washington ranks 42nd for the lowest percentage of bridges deemed to be "functionally obsolete" – 20.3 percent – an indication of aging road infrastructure. In the percentage of roads deemed to be in "good" or "very good" condition, the state ranks 16th. Here no new statistics were available, so the rankings remain unchanged.
- Washington ranks 37th in average commute travel time – 25.3 minutes – a measure of highway congestion. Last year it ranked 39th.
- Washington ranks 36th in lowest combined state and local business tax burden. In other words, it's the 15th highest. Last year it was 37th. So it has improved one notch. The key thing, the report says, is that Washington's business tax burden is higher than in most Western states, particularly as compared to Oregon and Idaho – and it is a disincentive to employers looking to relocate.
- Washington ranks 46th in lowest unemployment insurance tax rates – in other words, the 5th highest in the country. A word of caution is appropriate here. This ranking is based on 2011 rates, and changes in the rate-setting procedure adopted by the 2011 Legislature are not reflected. National trends in unemployment insurance are likely to improve this number in future years, as many states were forced to borrow from the federal government to maintain solvency, and now must repay those loans; Washington did not. Last year Washington ranked 44th.
- Washington ranked 50th in lowest worker-compensation payouts – in other words, the very highest – up from 49th in 2011. Another word of caution here. The Roundtable is using 2009 data, the latest available, when payouts were an average $857.32 per covered worker. The national average was $448.94. Reforms adopted by the 2011 Legislature are aimed at reducing those figures, but it may take time to see results.
For more background see: www.waroundtable.com