Historic budget accelerates investments in helping businesses, families and local governments rebound and grow

As you are likely aware by now, the 2021-23 state biennial budget makes historic investments in Washington’s recovery and growth trajectory coming out of the pandemic. At Commerce, we are preparing for significant work ahead as we implement a $2.7 billion operating budget and $2.4 billion in capital funding. Our team is growing – we’re recruiting exceptional team members, so I invite you to check out and share positions currently posted and watch for more here as we enhance our capabilities, particularly around equity and inclusion, and economic development and community outreach. As always, Commerce will be well-equipped to tackle the big challenges ahead, and we’re excited to be tasked with so many important programs that will strengthen communities throughout the state over the next two years and beyond. Here are some highlights from the 2021 session and budget.

Broadband: As schools and communities struggled to stay open through restrictions on physical gathering, gaps in access to affordable, high-quality internet access became painfully apparent to everyone.  The Washington Broadband Office launched in fall of 2019 with two full-time staff and no funding of its own, and led an exceptional effort and collaboration with state boards, agencies, local, federal and private sector partners to map out and position Washington communities for universal broadband access by 2024. Now, the Legislature has provided $400 million in infrastructure funding, which, combined with broadband funding administered by the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) and Public Works Board, will connect and fill broadband service gaps in unserved rural areas and underserved communities and leverage additional federal funds.   Public utility districts and other local government subdivisions will be empowered to provide direct retail service to customers thanks to the passage of SB 5383 and HB 1336. Commerce will also launch a digital equity program to ensure that where there is infrastructure, communities also have meaningful access to devices, subscriptions and digital skills.

Housing and homelessness: Unprecedented investments will help people avoid eviction and pay their rent, including $658 million in rental assistance and an increase in document recording fees, which will dedicate sustainable revenues over time to address homelessness and create permanent supportive housing.  Commerce’s Housing Trust Fund will administer more than $175 million for affordable housing, including $125 million in competitive funding, and an additional $120 million will be granted to local governments and nonprofits to support rapid acquisition of properties to make more housing units available where they’re needed most.  More than $190 million is provided to help homeowners keep their homes and avoid foreclosure.  Both low-income homeowners and renters will be able to access an additional $80 million in utility assistance through the Low-Income Home and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to address mounting power and water bills.  The budget also deepens the state’s ongoing investment in “anchor communities,” successful regional initiatives launched in Pierce, Spokane, Walla Walla and Yakima counties targeting prevention and services for homeless youth and young adults.  Commerce will also staff a homeownership racial disparities work group to identify and make recommendations to the Legislature for removing barriers to homeownership.

Economic development: Commerce’s Office of Economic Development and Competitiveness will administer a fifth round of Working Washington emergency small business assistance grants. In addition, thanks to bipartisan legislation HB 1170, Commerce will also be able to deepen strategic investments in regional efforts to support and grow advanced manufacturing, a central pillar of enduring economic recovery that creates and sustains good, family-wage jobs.  Commerce will develop a plan to implement $138 million in federal funding through the State Small Business Credit Initiative, and we will transition the small business resiliency network that we piloted during the pandemic into an enduring program, helping connect small businesses with culturally competent services and equal access to opportunity.

Climate and Environmental Justice: Across our agency, Commerce will work to incorporate environmental justice principles in our decision-making, from budget development to funding decisions.  Our Energy Division helped lead the complex technical work behind SB 5141. We will move to implement this transformative mandate to reduce environmental and health disparities across Commerce and other state agencies, while simultaneously playing a new supporting role in informing implementation of two bills that catapult Washington to the forefront of states tackling climate change: the Climate Commitment Act and the Clean Fuel Standard.  Commerce’s Growth Management Services unit will work this interim to develop guidance so that local governments can address climate change and resiliency in their comprehensive plans.  Additionally, the Clean Energy Fund will continue to invest and promote energy innovation, including through transportation electrification grants.

Community Services: Washington state stepped in with $15 million to fill what is hopefully a temporary gap in federal funding for crime victim services administered by Commerce’s Office of Crime Victims’ Advocacy (OCVA).  In the wake of the Blake decision, we will also for the first time administer a $5 million grant program for nonprofits that provide reentry services.  The new Office of Firearm Safety will have funding for grants to communities. Commerce will also build on pioneering work by the Childcare Collaborative Task Force, implementing new funding for renovation of childcare facilities and to promote regional collaborative partnerships addressing lack of access to quality, affordable childcare for all.

Local Government and Infrastructure: The Public Works Board will implement $129 million for infrastructure as very-low-interest loans that will be expected to revolve back to the account over time. The board also will manage an additional federal appropriation for public infrastructure.  The new capital budget also includes deep investments in community facilities including for behavioral health and early learning.

Equity outreach: Commerce will engage in community outreach and listening sessions to identify barriers in state capital funding programs that currently prevent the realization of community-centered projects, and administer $5 million in capital funding directed specifically to address such barriers.  We will also help deliver funding through nearly 50 other provisos that help a specific initiative or dream become reality for communities all over the state.

This is just a quick survey of the exciting work ahead for our agency. I am grateful for the hard work, expertise and dedication of our Commerce team members, all of whom played a role in making this session successful and will now shine as we implement the funding and programs entrusted to us.  I am truly honored to lead this exceptional group.

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