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What all of Washington has in common: Top priorities are the same despite regional differences

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If you’ve driven into Seattle lately, you would probably think Washington’s economy is booming. There are construction cranes seemingly as far as the eye can see.

Compared to just a few years ago, things are definitely looking up.

There are other signs of life, too. As of July, the statewide unemployment rate was 5.6 percent, well below the national average of 6.5 percent. That’s the lowest it has been since August, 2008, and better than it was during the boom years of the 1990s.

In King County, the unemployment rate has dropped all the way to 4.7 percent.

But all you have to do is drive a bit in any direction and the picture becomes less rosy.

Unemployment is still too high in many parts of the state, particularly in rural areas. The tech boom that’s largely fueling the Puget Sound economy hasn’t made it to Grays Harbor and Ferry counties, where the unemployment rate is 8.2 percent. The corners of the state are nearly double King County’s rate.

And youth unemployment is discouragingly high — 22 percent of Washington 16-19 year-olds can’t find work.

It’s almost as if there are two Washingtons.

With this in mind, a coalition of business leaders embarked on a road trip this summer to find out what it will take to bring broad prosperity to the state.

I was joined on the tour by Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable, and Richard Davis, president of the Washington Research Council. Together, our organizations make up the Washington Alliance for a Competitive Economy, known as WashACE.

WashACE was formed in 2000 around the time of the dot-com bust, another time in our state’s history where there was uneven prosperity.

During the course of the two-week, 12-city tour, we met with employers and local leaders and asked about the challenges they are facing.

What makes Washington a good place for business? What are their biggest concerns? What kinds of policy changes can legislators make to ensure that everyone has a chance to share in the economic recovery?

Despite some regional differences, what we heard was remarkably consistent. In every community, leaders said that education, transportation and job growth are their top priorities.

In several places, immigration policy and the lack of a state tourism department also registered as major concerns.

The so-called skills gap is one reason why education is a big deal for employers. There are already 25,000 unfilled jobs in Washington — jobs for which employers can’t find qualified workers. The number is expected to double by 2017.

Employers want to see more emphasis on STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — in K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities.

Transportation is a priority because manufacturers and farmers need to get their goods to market — and employees need to get to work. Congestion is already a big problem in parts of the state and it’s only going to grow as the population rises.

It’s past time for the state to make needed reforms to the transportation department — and for lawmakers to invest in transportation infrastructure.

And underlying everything is the need for a predictable and consistent regulatory environment and a tax structure that doesn’t make Washington among the most expensive states in the country for business.

Currently, Washington businesses pay 54 percent of all taxes in the state, making the state the 14th highest in the country for business taxes. And workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance costs are among the highest in the country.

These are some big issues, and solutions won’t come easily. But it’s important that employers, lawmakers and community leaders come together and find a way to make progress so that all of Washington can emerge strong from the recession.

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