Sharon Brown: Olympia misses another chance for quicker project reviews, job creation

May 13, 2016

This guest column was published in the Tri-Cities Business News, May 13, 2016.

By Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick

Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick

Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick

Economic growth in Washington rests, in part, on political oversight. Our state faces a number of infrastructure and trade opportunities that, if approved in a timely manner, can create more jobs and a stronger local economy.  Unfortunately, many of these projects stall due to a permit process that shackles them with red tape and delays.

Streamlining this process is critical to unlocking our state’s economic potential, which is why during the recently-completed 2016 legislative session, I introduced Senate Bill 6527 to inject much-needed accountability into the review of local infrastructure projects.

Under my regulatory “shot clock” proposal, government agencies conducting State Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA, reviews would be held to a 30-day completion process. It would also require completion of environmental project reviews no later than 12 months following submission of project applications not requiring a federal review.

These requirements are critical. For years the significant overlap between state and federal reviews has resulted in the unnecessary loss of time and investments regarding local infrastructure projects.

Ironically, the legislative clock ran out before my colleagues had a chance to take up this bill, though it did pass the Senate Trade and Economic Development Committee. The measure holds tremendous promise for our economy, and deserves another review in our next session.

For one, private investments in infrastructure and trade projects make up a large part of Washington’s economy. We depend on these resources to maintain good-paying jobs, create new ones and sustain healthy economic revenue.

If investments are made — and ultimately lost —in a project due to shortcomings of the review process, that is a direct failure of the state’s objective to remain competitive.

Failure to do so means taking those resources that would otherwise go to Washingtonians and our local infrastructure, and instead handing them over to competing markets such as British Columbia, which has significantly increased efforts around trade development, including exports.

The unpredictability of Washington’s review process also eliminates incentives for investors. We want Washington to attract a wide variety of private investors to bolster our economic productivity. But currently, infrastructure projects awaiting both federal and state review are sitting in an open-ended process that fails to assure investors that these projects will be completed in a timely, cost-effective manner.

Missing out on these critical investments affects more than just local businesses and investors; it also hurts Washington families.

In a recent interview, former U.S. maritime administrator David Matsuda cited Canada’s ‘shot clock’ approach with a set time limit for examining environmental impacts. Absent a finite timeframe in our state, he said, jobs will go elsewhere.

Since becoming a state senator, my top concern has been enacting policies that make Washington more competitive and allow our employers to maintain and create new jobs. So I worry about what happens if we cannot streamline the process to get more of these competitive projects up and running in a timely manner.

Employers tell me — and the facts bear this out — that failure to act will result in projects becoming too costly and eventually disappearing altogether, resulting in job cuts for many local families already struggling to make ends meet.

I recognize the importance of reviewing infrastructure projects in our state and the value all Washingtonians place on our environmental quality of life.

The regulatory reform I proposed is about taking a common-sense approach that incorporates public feedback, yet provides predictable deadlines. It is not necessary to make a choice between regulatory reform and the environment.  It is possible to incorporate both.

History confirms that we can streamline the regulatory process in a meaningful way and provide much-needed predictability to developers.  When the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Skagit River collapsed, we were able to streamline the rebuilding process and get commuters back on the road, without having to sacrifice the environment.  We have proven that we can do this.

We need to codify that process so such streamlining is approached not haphazardly but on a case-by-case basis. My legislation takes a balanced approach that focuses on introducing accountability and predictability into the process.

Washington has attracted turnkey infrastructure projects that, if unshackled from an inefficient review process, can spur significant economic growth and job creation.

It’s disappointing lawmakers this year missed a prime opportunity to amend this process and finally set free our state’s true economic potential. Working families can’t afford to wait much longer.

Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, is chair of the Senate Trade and Economic Development Committee.