The State Legislature Doesn’t Know How Much They Know About Trade

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the car between Seattle and Olympia with Sam Kaplan, President of the Trade Development Alliance. That’s not because I love Wagner’s cinnamon bread so much (ok, it’s not only because I love Wagner’s cinnamon bread so much), but rather because I am dedicated to the implementation of the International Competitiveness Strategy, which has – as one of its six recommendations – the following directive: “State-level advocacy for increased investments in international competitiveness, including infrastructure, education and the marketing and branding of our state to potential customers, students, tourists and investors.”

When Sam and I first started making the rounds in Olympia – publishing op-eds, testifying at hearings, meeting one-on-one with state legislators – I was under the working assumption that state legislators didn’t really know much about international trade.

I was wrong. What I now realize is that state legislators don’t know that they in fact know a lot about international trade. The challenge is getting them to take action based on this knowledge in a way that supports and grows our state’s trade economy.

Let’s take a step back and talk about why this effort even matters. Most trade policy, from free trade agreements to harmonized tariff schedules, is shaped at the federal level and internationally, right? Sure, you could say that. But there’s also a significant amount of impact that the state legislature has on helping Washington employers maintain and grow their international competitiveness; as the Strategy says, “including infrastructure, education and the marketing and branding of our state to potential customers, students, tourists and investors.”

Relatively obvious, right? But sometimes it seems like the state legislature is so focused on the short term budget crises and political battles of the day that they lose sight of this fact. The truth is that, if at least 40% of all jobs in Washington are tied to trade, then trade is the single largest driver of our state’s economy. Which means that every policy and investment decision happening in Olympia should be viewed through the filter of “how does this impact the international competitiveness of our employers?”

Let’s get back to what I thought I knew about the state legislature, which is that they didn’t get the importance of international trade. Instead, what Sam and I have found in talking to individual legislators is that many of them work directly in industries that are highly trade dependent – from folks in the forest products industry to international trade economists. Yes, that’s right; there is an international trade economist in the state legislature! Even elected officials that aren’t directly employed by trade industries often get that their constituents are, and/or have just returned from some official trip to China or Germany.

So where is the disconnect between those international connections and a focused, strategic approach by the State Legislature to supporting our trade economy? I blame two main culprits.

  1. First, I think it’s clear that we need an “international trade caucus” in the state legislature: a bi-partisan, bi-cameral group of legislators that get together a few times a year to look at specific policies and investments the state needs to make to support our trade economy. This group would also be key during session in pointing out to their colleagues when legislation might have unintended consequences on our state’s international competitiveness. Removal of the stevedoring tax exemption, I’m looking in your general direction…
  2. Second, the problem is us. The job of the community is to help raise awareness of the importance of particular issues to our elected officials, especially when those elected officials are only part time. We need a sustained and focused effort to build that coalition of business, ports, farmers, tourism professionals, educators and others who understand this issue and can raise its profile to the point where the message is clear, concise and impactful. I think that’s easy to do, and WCIT can be a leader in building that momentum.

Especially if there’s lots of opportunities to buy more cinnamon bread because of it…

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