Guest Post: Why the State’s Tech Industry Needs to Raise its Political Profile

By Lewis A. McMurran, VP of Government Affairs, Washington Technology Industry Association

When Joe Wallin asked me to write a guest op-ed for his blog I was excited to do so. As the WTIA’s VP of Government Affairs with over 20 years of state level lobbying under my belt, I felt I had at least some modicum of credibility around the topic of political influence.

With a primary election a week away and a big general election in November, this issue is timely.

For those of you that follow legislation and politics, you know there have been a number of big issues that affected the tech industry that have occurred in both Olympia and Washington, D.C. this year. While WTIA focuses primarily at the state level, there are federal issues that WTIA and the tech industry have worked on in 2010. Issues such as repatriation of foreign earnings, comprehensive immigration reform, broadband and net neutrality and recently the accredited investor piece of the financial overhaul and online privacy have all required the tech industry to be involved and actively engage to protect the interests of technology companies and entrepreneurs.

At the state level, we have dealt with K-12 reform/Race to the Top, the slashing of higher education budgets and the ill-advised proposal to apply sales to tax custom software.

The state’s technology industry, however you define it, is one of the top industries in the state. Yet, as an industry we have not translated our economic influence into commensurate political influence. Why? 

The main reason is money, the second is unity and the third is indifference. I think most tech industry members would agree that we ought to be preeminent, with the number and quality of jobs the industry generates, the amount of wealth that the tech industry has created and the reach technology has into everyday life. Yet, we are politically outflanked by organized labor, the tribes, trial attorneys as well as a number of regulated industries, from timber to utilities to builders.

For one thing these groups have been playing the political game for much longer than we have. Regulated industries, being regulated, figured out a long time ago that they have to be deeply involved in the political process if they aren’t going to be regulated out of business. Most of the technology sector is essentially unregulated—something for which we should be thankful but also protective of.

Indifference. That word may be strong but let’s say that tech innovators do not have the time to give “mind share” to political and legislative activity that affects the industry broadly. Members of the tech industry will go to great lengths for the causes they are passionate about but there seems to be little passion for promoting the technology industry itself to lawmakers.

I have heard from small and medium tech companies when a big issue comes up in Olympia “Isn’t Microsoft paying attention to that?” Sure, whether it’s education or regulation of spyware but does it make sense to cede the industry’s voice to one very large company that is primarily looking out for itself? This is not a dig at Microsoft as all large companies do the same thing but it is not prudent to let someone else do your lobbying for you. 

A prime example of this was during the debate on the custom software sales tax earlier this year in Olympia. Microsoft was “neutral” on that proposal, meaning that if it did pass they did not see it as harming them and if it failed, the status quo remained. But for custom software developers this idea was anathema to them. 

This was one proposal where indifference fell by the wayside and those affected responded to our calls to action and contacted their legislators. However, what does it say about the industry that the legislative proponents of that tax came from Seattle and the Eastside—the literal center of the software development universe?

Unity. One of the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of working in the tech industry and talking to entrepreneurs is the variety of thinking across a wide range of subjects among tech people. Of course this translates to the political spectrum as well. When you look out at the various interest groups they often tend toward one way of thinking and one political party. The unions, tribes and environmentalists are almost exclusively supportive of Democrats while many regulated businesses such as timber, builders and “small business” lean to the political right.

The technology sector is characterized by those whose political leanings range from Green to Libertarian and everything in between. The risk is that we can never agree on anything, making a united front difficult if not impossible. While it makes for enlightening debate, the tech industry has to be unified when it comes to the big issues that affect our continued growth in Washington.

Luckily, it seems that there is a good deal of unity around issues such as K-12 reform, higher education funding and tax and regulatory policies that support innovation and entrepreneurship. While there may be differences at the margins, I have yet to find anyone in the tech sector, party affiliation notwithstanding, that doesn’t believe we shouldn’t improve STEM education, increase graduation rates, keep standards high and hold the K-12 system accountable for results. Similarly, most also believe that graduating more engineers and computer scientists from our state’s universities should be a legislative priority. 

Because we are not philosophically hamstrung, it puts the tech industry in an excellent position to be influential within both major parties, as long as the message is consistent and we are willing to spend the…

Money in a coordinated fashion that demonstrates we are serious about supporting those who go to bat for the tech industry’s policy priorities. As a former WTIA Board member once said, “politics is a coin-operated business”. While it may sound cynical, there is truth in that statement. No matter what you believe about campaign finance, you have to pay to play. The other reality is that campaigns are expensive. All major industries in this state (and many minor ones) put a great deal more emphasis and real money into their political action committees than the tech industry does.

I know many individuals are very active in making political contributions, usually reflecting their own political proclivities but that usually does not translate into industry influence. By not being major players, we allow all those aforementioned groups to have more influence than their employment numbers and global reach would argue for.

Organized labor, in particular, has much more influence than their numbers would indicate. Private sector union jobs have declined steadily over the past 30 years and outside of Boeing and a few traditional industries (timber, utilities) the vast majority of private sector workers are non-union. Yet, because union members doorbell for candidates, put up yard signs and spend lots of money on campaign contributions, those in office pay a lot of attention to what they want, even if that agenda is hurting the state overall.

The state’s technology industry is uniquely positioned to be leading the way in influencing public policy for the future. We all love this place, the quality of life, the entrepreneurial spirit, the boundless opportunities that the technology industry has helped create. Now is the time for us to step up and take our place as the state’s leaders.

The game has changed as President Obama showed in his campaign through the use of social media, internet-based fundraising and a large and committed grassroots network. The WTIA is now using many of these tools and will continue to improve how we use them. But we need your help, advice and support.

As a department of one, I cannot do it alone. What you can do is become part of our government affairs listserv (http://www.washingtontechnology.org/pages/people/people_listservs.asp). The second thing you can do is contribute to TechPAC (http://www.washingtontechnology.org/pages/advocacy/advocacy_wsa_pac.asp) and attend one of WTIA’s upcoming PAC fundraising events (http://www.washingtontechnology.org/pages/events/events_events_wsaevent.asp?id=1008PAC).   There you can meet both current legislators and candidates to find out where they stand on K-12, higher education and tax and regulatory issues.

The technology sector has a bright future in Washington. Let’s ensure that our policymakers do what it takes to make it happen.

About Joe Wallin

Joe Wallin focuses on emerging, high growth, and startup companies. Joe frequently represents companies in angel and venture financings, mergers and acquisitions, and other significant business transactions. Joe also represents investors in U.S. businesses, and provides general counsel services for companies from startup to post-public.
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