Governor Gary Locke’s Remarks
Walla Walla Rotary
October 7, 2004
In a few months, I will leave this job I’ve grown to love so much. As I’ve reflected on how much I have enjoyed serving the people of Washington, I’ve felt many things. Gratitude. Humility. Hope. Satisfaction. A sense of accomplishment.
And, I must admit, a little puzzlement.
Why puzzlement? Because, in the heat of this year’s campaign, we’re hearing some very strange things. We’re hearing that we in Olympia have done nothing and that we’re getting nowhere. And that Washington voters should reject “more of the same.”
I’ve been deeply honored to serve as Governor of this great state. And I am very proud of the progress we’ve made during my two terms. From education and job growth to regulatory reform; from increasing sales of Washington agriculture to foreign markets to improving services to Washington citizens. We have Washington right on track for a very bright future.
I’m especially proud because we’ve faced some formidable challenges. Challenges that seemed to come from every direction. A major earthquake. An energy crisis. Droughts. September 11th, and the constant challenge of improving Homeland Security. A severe economic downturn. Serious state budget shortfalls. And now, Mount St. Helens has come out of retirement!
Yet here we are. We survived, we rebounded, and we’re charging ahead. The people of Washington have a right to be proud of our progress.
Just a couple of years ago, we were in the depths of some very tough economic times. Now our economy is recovering. Our unemployment rate continues to come down. The rate for August was 6%. For a short while it was close to 8%. I should note that we’re well below the 1971 rate, when unemployment rose to 10.4% under Governor Evans. We’re well below the unemployment rate of the early ‘80s, when it was 11.9% under Governor Spellman.
Despite tough times, our state has gained 280,000 jobs since I took office in 1997.
Our state budget approach was a key factor in the timing of our turnaround. At my insistence in 2003, we solved our state’s budget crisis without a general tax increase, unlike most states (most with Republican governors). My Priorities of Government approach funded the services that matter most with the money we had.
We cut programs and suspended voter-approved new spending by $2.6 billion in the current 2003-05 budget cycle. Yes, it hurt. But we managed this reduction without a crisis. And without dismantling core services to the people of our state. The Legislature adopted my approach. Some are even out there taking credit for it!
Our Priorities of Government has been written about all across America and is now being used by many states and local governments.
Another factor in our economic turnaround was that we took advantage of super low-interest rates to refinance borrowing for state construction projects. Just as homeowners refinance home loans to reduce their monthly mortgage payments. We took savings to pay for interest on new borrowing for state construction projects, with the total interest costs the same as before the refinancing.
This is work that needs to be done anyway. These projects are putting tens of thousands of people to work all around the state. They’re making needed renovations at our colleges and universities, schools, and state hospitals. All of this done by the private sector, mostly local construction, engineering and architectural firms.
The state constitution limits interest payments on borrowing to less than 5 or 6 percent each year. But we’re maximizing the opportunities within those limits.
And of course the 5-cent gas tax increase is also a big help in our recovery. We are finally taking needed steps to make our roads safer and less congested. We’re improving freight mobility with so many projects in eastern Washington, including Highway 12 from tri-Cities to Walla Walla. And, again, we’re putting people from private sector construction companies to work on these needed improvement projects across our state.
Our tough decisions and actions are now paying off. The economy is turning around. The unemployment rate is dropping. And we’re working to lower it even more.
We have continued to become more business-friendly and more competitive the past several years. The U.S. Census Bureau recently released state rankings for state and local tax burdens. And we ranked 31st, meaning 30 states have higher tax burdens. This is the lowest our state has ranked since 1981!
We also made substantial progress in regulatory reform, cutting red tape, streamlining regulatory processes, repealed thousands of pages and rewrote thousands more into simple plain English.
The Department of Ecology is acting on 90% of water quality permits within 90 days. We’re on target to meet this goal.
We’ve also worked hard to keep state government efficient, and to control its size. There are now fewer state employees in general government per state residents today than when I took office.
We have the lowest tax burden in more than twenty years. A regulatory process that is much more efficient and customer-friendly while still protecting the environment. And significant savings in time and money. I am pretty sure that the businesses that are choosing our state because of these favorable factors probably want more of the same! Indeed, nine national companies have chosen Washington over Oregon, Idaho and even California for major regional operations manufacturing centers. One world-wide company moved its North/South headquarters from Denver to Washington State.
Our trade missions are another way in which we’ve worked hard to boost our state’s economy. These missions yield results and open doors of opportunity for our state’s businesses and farms.
Eastern Washington is a big player in our state’s trade. Whether it’s Walla Walla Sweets to Canada, cherries and apples to Japan, soft white wheat to China, chipping potatoes to Korea, frozen French fries to Mexico or Walla Walla wines to Vietnam, our state is globally known for our agricultural products. Washington is the third largest exporter of food and agriculture products in the U.S. Our farmers are vitally important to our robust export activity. All of my trade missions have focused heavily on increasing sales of Washington agriculture to other countries. Products like wheat, cherries, apples, potatoes, and wine.
Two weeks ago I returned from an international trade mission to China and Vietnam. We were very successful. Our business delegates are reporting actual sales of $1.4 million. And approximately $41.4 million in projected new sales during the next 12 months. This is all as a result of our mission.
And our trip to China last fall was another big success. Following that trip, the delegates reported more than $2.5 million in actual sales. And projected sales of more than $40 million. That’s great for our farmers and businesses, and great for Washington workers in creating new jobs.
From the budget to jobs to transportation to trade, we’ve positioned Washington for a better, brighter economic future.
We all know that our economic future depends on the quality of our education system. The most important long-term factor in keeping our state great is a great education system. Here, too, I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved in several years of education reform.
Our children are doing better than ever in school. Washington students now exceed the national average in most tests, and lead the nation in numerous categories.
This year’s WASL results are proof that we have made great strides in raising academic achievement. In 1997, for example, 48 percent of 4th graders met the state reading standard. This year, 74 percent passed. In 1998, 38 percent of 7th graders met the reading standard. This year, 60 percent passed. In 1999, 51 percent of 10th graders met the reading standard. This year, 64 percent passed. Similarly significant gains have been made in math at all three tested grade levels as well.
Our students’ gains are further validated by recent strong performances on the S.A.T., the ACT college-readiness exam, and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
We should all be proud of the great work of our teachers, parents and communities. We have accomplished much, and we are charging ahead. We know that we still have work to do and must intensify our efforts.
We’ve also made great strides in helping Washington students realize the dream of a college education. The Promise Scholarships I created in 1999 are making this dream a reality for academically successful high school students of working/middle-class families who are in the top 15% of their class. This year is the sixth successful year of the program, with about 7,500 Washington students receiving these scholarships.
Since 1997 when I took office, we’ve also steadily increased state funding to colleges and universities so they can enroll more students. Our projections show that we still need to do even more to keep pace with demand.
We have the lowest welfare rate for our state in more than 30 years, with less than 2.3% of our state’s population receiving welfare grants. The number of families now on welfare represents a 41% drop since 1997, when I took office. More than 143,000 families have been helped off welfare.
In the two evaluations since I took office, Governing Magazine and Cornell University have each time named Washington among the five best-managed states in the nation. A few months ago, the National Policy Research Council issued its national rankings of all states and major U.S. cities. Washington state government was ranked number one. We were ranked third in Economic Dynamism. This category analyzes the competitiveness and performance of every state’s economy.
I am very proud of the way we have used technology to make government more efficient and deliver government services more conveniently. Things that used to take agencies months are now done within days. We have won numerous national awards for the services we provide online. We’ve been named “the most digital state government” in the country almost every year for the past seven years.
For example, taxes can be paid online. You can get a duplicate birth certificate, obtain business licenses and even reserve a campsite online. It used to take over an hour to renew your drivers’ license. Then under my direction, licensing got it down to 10 minutes. And starting next month, you will be able to renew your driver’s license online, meaning no wait at all!
We still have more to do; we must continue to strive to improve our efficiency and effectiveness and to reduce and simplify regulations.
I’ve just hit on a handful of highlights today. I could go on all day, but I promised I wouldn’t. Our state is a leader in so many areas. And that didn’t happen by accident. We’ve worked hard and made tough decisions over the years because we believe in this state. And we believe in an even brighter future for our kids.
But we have some critical decisions in this election, especially about whether the dreams we have for our children will come true.
I’m confident that our citizens enjoy living, working and raising their families here in Washington.
I appreciate the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you today.