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New face, same commitment

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The last time the Association of Washington Business changed presidents, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, a gallon of gas cost 91 cents and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was hovering around 2,100.

Which is to say it’s been a while.

Four presidential administrations, a few dollars at the pump, and roughly 14,000 stock market points later, AWB is going through a transition.

On Jan. 1, Don Brunell retired as AWB president, and I was selected to be the next leader of Washington’s oldest and largest business association.

I look forward to the work ahead, knowing the challenges facing employers are daunting — and cannot be ignored.

For the last three years, I have served as AWB’s vice president of operations, a role that has allowed me to travel the state and meet with business owners and hear firsthand about their concerns. Before that I spent 15 years in chamber leadership roles in St. Paul, Minn., the Tri-Cities and Spokane.

The experience has confirmed what I learned growing up in a family of Montana dairy farmers: Running a business is not easy.

One of the biggest challenges facing Washington employers at the moment is simply the cost of doing business. The absence of a state income tax means that Washington can score deceptively high in some of those business rankings that magazines publish.

But the truth is that we’re a high-cost state when you add up the total of all the taxes and regulations we do have — things like high unemployment insurance taxes and the country’s most generous workers’ compensation benefits.

Costs really do matter, which is why AWB will continue to call on the Legislature to approve new workers’ compensation reforms that will give injured workers the option to settle claims.

It’s a modest proposal that would bring Washington in line with most of the country, but it could produce meaningful savings for employers and help make Washington more competitive with other states.

Transportation is another priority. Gov. Jay Inslee has been calling on lawmakers to approve a transportation package for months, and we share the governor’s desire to keep goods and services moving on both sides of the Cascades.

We support a proposal put forward by the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus that includes three key provisions: Reforms to the state Department of Transportation that will ensure tax dollars are well spent; additional money for preservation of our existing roads, bridges, highways and ferries; and funding for critical capital projects statewide.

A third priority for the upcoming legislative session is regulatory reform. It’s not the sexiest of topics, but it impacts every business owner in the state, big and small alike.

A pressing example is the Department of Ecology’s proposed changes to the state’s water quality standards.

If adopted, the new standards would be impossible to meet with existing technology, yet employers and municipal ratepayers could be required to spend billions of dollars trying to meet them, according to a study commissioned by AWB, the Association of Washington Cities and the Washington State Association of Counties.

These are big and complex problems, but AWB is well-equipped to build on our successes and continue serving as the voice for more than 8,100 member companies throughout Washington.

And our commitment to help employers create jobs and grow the economy remains just as strong now as it was back in July 1988 when a postage stamp cost 22 cents, unemployment was 5.5 percent — and AWB got its last new president.

Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce.