The wide-ranging jobs plan Gov. Jay Inslee pitched while running for governor is still a work in progress, but some of his ideas are taking shape at a state agency he dubbed “dysfunctional” on the campaign trail.
Inslee proposed a new agency focused solely on economic development that would coordinate business outreach across state government. Under his plan, the Office of Economic Competitiveness and Development would have an ambassador to each of the industries Inslee saw as economic engines.
That office now exists, even if it’s different from the campaign blueprint in ways both minor (its name transposed into the Office of Economic Development and Competitiveness) and major (it’s housed within the Department of Commerce rather than on its own).
In his race against Republican Rob McKenna, Inslee had proposed pulling apart Commerce, the economic-development, housing and infrastructure agency where he saw too many different missions. Inslee now says the new Commerce director, his former congressional and campaign aide Brian Bonlender, is moving “to make the agency more nimble” and help economic innovators.
“In general, what we’re doing is putting a higher-level focus on the job-creation (piece) of the Commerce Department,” Inslee said in an interview.
The Democratic governor said Thursday that he would need legislators’ agreement to divide the agency and that he has bigger fish to fry in the Legislature’s ongoing special session but might return to the idea.
Inslee can expect interest from Republican Sen. John Braun, who chairs the Senate Committee on Economic Development. Braun said he too is inclined toward splitting off a separate agency to focus solely on that topic.
In the meantime, Bonlender is pushing to consolidate and restructure the agency. An executive director for the economic development office arrived last week: Richard Locke, founder of a succession of energy and technology startups.
Bonlender also has promoted Mary Trimarco to assistant director for business services at Commerce. He said the organizational reshuffling consolidates some top positions and will not increase spending on management.
Another proposed consolidation brings together Commerce and Innovate Washington, a less than 2-year-old agency with a nonprofit arm that allows it to raise private money. The House budget plan written by Democrats agreed to a merger, while the Republican-flavored Senate budget simply proposed cutting Innovate Washington. The agency’s board has raised questions about both options.
Bonlender said the two agencies overlap, such as when both started working on landing one of the manufacturing hubs that President Barack Obama touted in this year’s State of the Union address.
The CEO of Innovate Washington, Kim Zentz, disputed that they overlap much but said they would work together regardless of what the Legislature chooses. Both are trying to bring a federal testing facility for unmanned aircraft — or drones — to Moses Lake and other Washington locations.
Outreach to industry
In keeping with Inslee’s strategy of focusing on specific economic sectors, Bonlender hopes to have “sector leads” for the aerospace, agriculture, clean-technology, life-sciences, maritime, information-technology and advanced-manufacturing industries, along with the military.
Neither House nor Senate included money for their salaries, but Inslee said he would keep pushing. Some of the money would come from the private sector while some sectors would be led by existing officials at other agencies.