The expiration of a decade-long tax credit for high-tech research and development meant to stimulate job creation in Washington is being met with mixed reviews, the Legislature this past session deciding the benefits haven’t justified the cost.
“The actual cost of the incentive — for the jobs that it created — was surprisingly high,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “It’s just not a cost-effective way to generate jobs.”
The Medina Democrat points to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee’s findings that the credit resulted in a less than 1 percent increase in high-tech employment between 1995 and 2012. That’s $60 million each two-year budget cycle, or about $45,000 per job created.
Hunter said Expedia’s decision to move to the Seattle waterfront was to have an iconic building, and Amazon based itself in South Lake Union because that’s where the tech talent is.
“What drove them was the availability of talent. The talent wants to work in South Lake Union and the talent also wants to grow in Bellevue,” he said, “and that’s why no one is worried about that empty office space.”
Hunter added the Legislature did find other ways of aiding the tech sector, such as approving Bellevue College’s two-year operating budget that reduces tuition and supports a new computer science degree.
“That is a much more effective way for us, as a state, to spend money than on lowering the tax rates for the most profitable companies in the world,” he said.
The city of Bellevue had been lobbying to keep the business and occupation tax credit, along with a sales tax deferral on R&D construction for small businesses and startups.
“We are so heavily reliant on the tech sector, and we were unsuccessful,” said Joyce Nichols, city government affairs director. “I don’t think there’s any other way to put it.”
Bellevue was one of 19 signatories on a Washington Tech Cities Coalition letter to legislators back in March that urged support of amended legislation that would have lowered the B&O tax credit cap from $2 million to $500,000.
There are 44 states with similar tax credit programs, and Washington’s loss could cause tech companies looking to relocate to reassess their options, Nichols said.
“We would be one of a handful that doesn’t have an exemption like this,” she said. “It could be a problem.”
But Washington Technology Industry Association CEO Michael Schutzler doesn’t think the change will have a serious effect on the state’s growing tech sector.
“It will be felt,” he said, “but it’s not going to stop the train.”
Schutzler said the Legislature should continue to focus on improving the state’s infrastructure, adding a transportation package that improves commute times in the Puget Sound region will be an added benefit for tech employers looking to attract employees to the area.
The top priority should be fixing the state’s education system, he said. Schutzler lauded passage of House Bill 1813, which funds teacher training and certification for K-12 computer science education.
Schutzler said it was disappointing the University of Washington did not receive the $40 million it was requesting for a new computer science and engineering building on campus. The Legislature approved $32.5 million in funding, but $15 million of that will come from the university’s building fund that was meant for maintenance.
“We need that school expanded,” he said. “It is the largest producer of software engineering talent in the state, bar none.”