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Business groups seek statewide grassroots support for strategy for prosperity issues

The presidents of three major business organizations in the state went on the road this summer, logging 1,000 miles by car to visit with business people in a dozen communities in an effort to create a common strategic focus for not just the coming legislative session, but beyond.

As Kris Johnson, preparing for his first legislative session as president of Association of Washington Business, ticked off the issues that emerged as a shared priority list from the various gatherings, the issues don't have an ideological ring to them.

Rather seeking to build a 21st century strategy for education and talent, job creation and investment and how to create an efficient transportation system for the state would seem to have appeal across the ideological spectrum.

Kris Johnson

But of course the shared vision of the business community on how to achieve those will differ from the views of an administration and Legislature that tends, with both houses and the governor's office controlled by Democrats, to be suspicious about business goals.

Johnson and Steve Mullin, president of the prestigious Washington Roundtable, along with Richard Davis, longtime president of the Washington Research Council and, in many respects the voice for business issues in his media columns, traveled together to the meetings.

In addition to hearing directly from about 400 business leaders and employers in the various communities, Johnson said there will be "an open survey portal, an online link basically, to provide a voice for those business people who didn't get to attend but want to have input for the discussion."

The details of the road trip and the plan for development of the first real grassroots strategy for businesses in the state will be outlined at AWB's 25th annual Policy Summit at Suncadia Sept. 16-18.

Thereafter, the process will involve continuing to be in touch with the groups involved in the summer meetings while Davis finalizes the actual rollout of the plan by December in time for a planned meeting with the legislators themselves prior to the commencement of the 2015 session.

The Washington Roundtable, chaired this year by Avista Utilities' president and CEO Scott Morris, and composed of the senior executives from the state's major private-sector employers, has tended to focus on the broad policy issues that haven't always been in sync with the concerns of small businesses around the state.

And in some respects, the challenges of geographic differences have almost become more daunting than ideological splits for efforts to build a cohesive grassroots strategy for business.

But with interlocking boards, the three organizations will be part of a shared vision going into the forthcoming legislative session.

And in addition, the business organizations have brought on Rich Hadley, the retired longtime and widely respected president of the chamber of commerce in Spokane, now Greater Spokane Inc., who retired earlier this year. His initial assignment is to bring the major chambers of commerce around the state on board with the coordinated planning.

"Face-to-face meetings can help create a broader vision that everyone can come to agree on," Hadley said. "I think the sincerity of a dialogue to bring people together from all parts of the state can overcome the inevitable efforts to divide the state with classic division-creating descriptions like Cscde Curtain."

Johnson says of the cooperative effort of the three organizations: "We are putting a lot of time and resources to build a comprehensive grassroots strategy to help employers to advocate and educate their elected officials."

There are likely to be strong legislative headwinds as lawmakers return to Olympia in January for their long session in which they face an estimated shortfall of about $1 billion before addressing any of likely additional costs to meet the state Supreme Court mandates on education funding.

Mike Schwenk, recently retired from Pacific Northwest National Labs where he was director of technology deployment and is the incoming chair of AWB, noted that the grassroots efforts is to get the voices of businesses in the 37 counties that have had varying degrees of challenge in their recovery, heard by lawmakers and policymakers.

"The key to all this is creating a plan that comes alive for the businesses around the state to buy into the strategy and understand it's their plan also," Schwenk said.

"We tend to forget about or be knowledgeable enough about the rest of the state," Johnson said. "The other 37 counties (beyond King and Snohomish) need a vehicle to communicate what's on their mind."

A key to all this is what skeptics may view as an elusive goal of helping lawmakers understand the ties between a healthy private sector, in all parts of the state, and the needs of those whose jobs depend on the state's economic vitality.

"One realization that needs to come out of this is that the economy of this state can't be easily subdivided, Davis said. "We need policies that are statewide. The Legislature needs to come to understand that we are not coming up with a business agenda so much as a prosperity agenda."

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