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Q&A: Commerce Director Lisa Brown on policy making in 2021

Lisa Brown is the Director of the Washington State Department of Commerce (COM). COM works with local governments and businesses to enhance sustainability and economic growth in communities.

With the 2021 legislative session fast approaching, I spoke with Brown to hear about the agency’s priorities. She offered details surrounding broadband access, affordable housing, equity in economy recovery, and the state energy agenda.

Brown previously served eight years as the first Democratic female Majority Leader of the State Senate. She also served as the Chancellor of Washington State University Spokane.

Michael Goldberg: Where did COM leave off before the pandemic, and how has its work been subsequently impacted?

Director Lisa Brown: I’ll start with the biggest division within Commerce, which is our community services and housing division. Even pre-pandemic, the focus was on creating more affordable housing. The state’s housing trust fund got a record level of investment from the Legislature. We also administer the programs around homelessness and youth homelessness. These were major issues before the pandemic, and they’ve just become more significant. 

The next area is economic development, which has now become economic emergency response and economic recovery work. We have work that we do to support small businesses, but we also work with the key sectors of the state’s economy, such as aerospace, life sciences, tech, maritime, clean energy, etc.

The pandemic has really brought all of that work into focus, both work around emergency response for small businesses as well as working on an Economic Recovery Dashboard that we put together so we can track economic recovery by industry, sector, and region. We anticipate a lot of focus by the Legislature on those topics since we’re still experiencing the economic impacts of the health crisis.” 

MG: What is the community services and housing division hearing from stakeholders at the moment?

LB: In the policy making arena, there is interest around things like the multifamily tax exemption. We also assist local governments with their growth management plans, and there are conversations around how land use planning can help facilitate greater density and help address housing supply. 

On the one hand, there is a piece of this that is about facilitating direct assistance to local governments that are working on moving people from homelessness to housing solutions. We work with every county in the state on that. 

As you move along the continuum to affordable housing, we just announced a new round of investments in the housing trust fund. But there is interest in the policy making arena about what other things can be done to stimulate the supply of housing at all levels, not just as the subsidized housing level, but workforce development housing and so forth.” 

MG: The pandemic has only furthered the sense of urgency for expanding access to broadband across the state. From your perspective, what is the best course of action on that front? 

LB: We’re focusing on a few initiatives. The first, which was underway pre-pandemic, is a gap analysis mapping out where there is either no meaningful internet access or insufficient access. We also have the grant program through the Public Works Board for broadband. The major funding is expected from the federal government, so our goal has been to set us up to be as successful as possible in attracting federal funds.

Going forward, we know there is the issue of technological access. The Legislature has set a very ambitious goal already for delivering access to all. But there are additional layers now, which is affordability as well as accessibility. That accessibility question really gets to the heart of equity because it could involve devices and technical assistance as well as a strong internet signal. We expect all of those things to be at the forefront of conversations. The governor’s budget also included an investment.”

Note: The Governor’s budget proposed more than $3 million (operating) to expand the Washington State Broadband Office. This would go toward increasing broadband access throughout the state, enhancing digital inclusion and equity, and fostering regional broadband advisory team efforts.

The Governor’s budget also proposed $45 million (capital) for additional broadband infrastructure projects, with some of those funds potentially unlocking federal broadband funding.

MG: You mentioned the Economic Recovery Dashboard COM created to help leaders focus recovery efforts on the communities and sectors facing disproportionate challenges. During the interim, some legislators said that embedding equity in the policy making process would be a guiding principle in the session. In addition to collecting more robust data, what does this concept of embedding equity in the policy making process mean for COM?

LB: For Commerce, we have a large portfolio of funds that we distribute through the capital budget which ultimately become assets like housing, community centers and early learning facilities. What equity means for us there is working with historically disadvantaged communities to be in a position to find their community needs and access state resources. 

There needs to be a lot of technological assistance so that historically disadvantaged communities can both define what they are looking for and then work through the process of predevelopment and proposal development so they can be successful in accessing those resources.

Equity is not just about the programs, but working with communities to understand barriers to access and to work with entities that are already trusted voices in the communities. When it comes to business assistance, for example, we’ve begun to work with a network of nonprofits called the Business Resilience Network. These are nonprofits who work with entrepreneurs and businesses in their communities. We work this network to ensure they have grants to do language and culturally appropriate outreach for businesses that have been on the short end of business programs.” 

MG: What else will COM be focused on during the 2021 session?

LB: We’re in active conversation with legislators in the House and Senate around their goals for broadband access. We are having lots of conversations with legislators around the equity question and what that means in business assistance and what that means in accessing state capital resources. 

Our energy office is releasing the state energy strategy. They are also working to implement legislation that already passed, such as the clean buildings bill. Given a lot of emphasis on the clean energy agenda, we’re mostly in the implementation phase. Our clean energy fund just completed a round of electrification infrastructure grants statewide, which involves working with local governments and entities all over the state to get more electric vehicle charging infrastructure in place. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


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