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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Ex-congressman Baird's ethics quest could gain national focus after 60 Minutes probe

Former Washington Congressman Brian Baird's long quest to bring a small note of integrity to the dysfunctional legislative body from which he retired a year ago has finally, with a 60 Minutes episode titled "Honest Graft," gotten a bit of national visibility for an idea whose time has long since come.

 

And it's possible that, as irate citizens across the country seek ways to express their frustration at the implications of the abject failure of the so-called supercommittee to come up with any agreement, Baird's idea may become a focal point for citizen action.

 

During the last three of his six terms representing the state's 3rd District, Democrat Baird sought unsuccessfully to pass, or even just gather support for, what he called the Stock Act. It would have barred members of Congress from doing stock transactions in areas they regulate, in essence, prohibiting their investing in a manner that those in the real world call Insider Trading.

 

For ordinary citizens, reaction to Baird's proposal would be a laughable "well, of course." But in a place whose mantra is "the rules we make for you don't apply to us," seeking to force action by the lawmakers on one small, self-imposed ethical constraint could become a rallying point for a fed-up public.

 

The thrust of the CBS segment that aired this month is that lawmakers often do make stock purchases and trades in the very fields they regulate. While ordinary citizens could be jailed for engaging in the kind of investment shenanigans that those in Congress involve themselves in, there's not even an ethical concern among lawmakers.

 

Baird may be able to gain far more visibility as a former lawmaker than he could as a member of Congress and the hope has to be that this first shot across the bow of Congress will echo down the months of the coming election year.

 

And a sure way to take this worthwhile campaign viral is to share in every possible social-media fashion 60 Minutes reporter Steve Croft's questioning of current House Speaker John Boehner and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi at their respective news conferences.

 

For viewers of the ineptitude with which both Boehner and Pelosi tried to answer Croft's questions about whether their investment practices were at least conflicts of interest, the thought that had to occur was "Who elects these people?" The answer, unfortunately, is people like us elect them. Shame on us.

 

Boehner, for example, bought a bunch of health-care-related stock during the health-care reform debate of 2009. And when Boehner's efforts to kill the so called "public option" succeeded, those stocks skyrocketed.

 

Pelosi, meanwhile, had gotten in on a series of lucrative stock Initial Public Offerings. One of those involved an enormous number of Visa shares that Pelosi purchased while she was working on legislation that would have hurt credit card companies. Two days after purchasing the stock at $44 a share, and after the bill was put on long-term hold, Pelosi's stock shot up to $64 a share.

 

Ideally, members of Congress will be pressed, in any news conference or appearance before business organizations or other groups in the coming election season, to explain why they fail to support the legislative concept for which Baird sought support in Congress.

 

Fortunately, Pelosi's struggles with the simple task of answering a question from the 60 Minutes reporter have become pervasive on YouTube, and should remain so down through election year as a backdrop to those questions posed to members of Congress seeking to stay in office. It should be watched by millions, and shared with millions more.

 

At a time when we're already dealing with "pledges" from candidates for political office, a much more logical pledge to press upon candidates than a no-taxes pact is: "Will you support the current version of Stock Act legislation in the House next year?"

 

And no candidate forsaking Congress for a run for state office should escape being forced to explain to their hoped-for statewide constituency why they lacked an interest in imposing ethical conduct at the most basic level on their fellow lawmakers and themselves by supporting Baird's efforts.

 

In this state, that would mean the question would be posed to Rep. Jay Inslee, who is running for governor. And why shouldn't he be pressed to answer that question? Hopefully, it will be posed early on in the campaign. 

 

Baird's 3rd District successor, Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler, announced earlier this month that she is signing on as a co-sponsor of a bill similar to Baird's plan, this one called "Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act," sponsored by Minnesota Democrat Timothy Welz.

 

A total of 92 lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors, including Washington Democrats Rick Larsen and Jim McDermott, though not Inslee.

 

But those wise in the way Congress works, or more accurately doesn't work, will note that the bill was assigned by House Leadership to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, about as distant from a subcommittee that has anything to do with ethics, finances or investments as they could get.

 

Howard Schultz' quixotic appeal to CEOs to halt donations to re-election campaigns of members of Congress because of their inability to progress beyond stalemate is a bit impractical because only candidates that CEO types contribute to would be impacted. Candidates supported by groups like unions and trial attorneys would actually benefit if Schultz' call drew CEO response.

 

But a call for denying donations to any member of Congress who doesn't pledge to support the specific legislation that Baird long championed might have a whole different outcome in terms of response from those seeking to remain in Congress. And since the demand for such a pledge would be coming from Democrat and Republican voters alike, it might be the seed that could grow into a renewed sense that there are things that those from all parts of the political spectrum can actually agree upon.

 

And it would thus represent a small step toward acceptability for a legislative body that badly needs to be viewed by the American public as not just trustworthy, but simply relevant.

 

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Access to growth capital could challenge state life-sciences sector's bright future

Washington State's life-sciences sector has remained, through the economic downturn, a jewel in the state's economic development crown. But the challenge of accessing capital that bedevils the industry's emerging companies, including the possible demise of the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, could hinder future growth.

 

The role biotech and biomedical companies have come to occupy as one of Washington's five largest and fastest-growing sectors, generating tens of thousands of high-wage jobs and more than $10.5 billion in economic activity, creates an important anchor for the state's economic future.

 

But as the Washington Biotech & Biomedical Association (WBBA) prepares for its annual meeting next week, in partnership with The Governor's Life Sciences Summit, there's an ongoing focus on seeking to ensure that emerging companies in the industry find the growth capital they need. And that could be increasingly challenging.

 

"With 70 percent of our companies having 50 or fewer employees, access to capital is the greatest challenge we face," said Chris Rivera, WBBA president.

 
 

 

An important part of that funding has been the Life Sciences Discovery Fund (LSDF), the program created by tobacco-settlement dollars that came into existence in 2008 and has been championed by Gov. Chris Gregoire as a key to fostering more biotech innovations and jobs in Washington.

 

But it has taken deep cuts each session as legislators grappled with yawning state budget deficits, and now could face elimination.

 

Rep. Glenn Anderson, the Eastside Republican who is one of four legislative trustees for the fund, says "it's an open question whether the fund will survive" the next session's budget cuts.

 

"The fund has done a good job of encouraging basic science and marketable, actionable, investable outcomes," Anderson said. "But I'd say there's only a 50-50 chance it will survive and if it doesn't survive, I think that would be shortsighted."

 

Rivera puts numbers on the fund's successes to provide definition to shortsightedness.

 

"LSDF awardees have been able to leverage their grants and bring in $9 for every $1 awarded," he said. "These are real dollars from out of state.  This has led directly to job creation, and great innovation in our state.

 

"I believe that LSDF has proven to be a smart investment by our state into a sector of great current economic value and future potential," he added. "Other states have poured hundreds of millions into life sciences, as they see the potential economic value of this sector and are willing to invest strategically."

 

Beyond the fund, WBBA has mounted some initiatives, as have supporting organizations, in seeking to develop alternative sources of capital, given both the now-challenged traditional lending sources and the problems facing the venture capital industry.

 

Bruce Jackson, vice president for business development at EnterpriseSeattle and ex-officio member of WBBA's board, says that despite the success of the biotech and medical-device sector, these are "clouded times" for young companies seeking to ramp up.

 

"In addition to the fact federal regulations can create a headwind for companies, access to capital for some deserving companies can be difficult," Jackson said.

 

EnterpriseSeattle's year-old partnership with the City of Federal Way in a medical-device incubator called Cascadia MedTech Association is an innovative approach to helping grow the industry, though Jackson concedes "the model hasn't been proven yet."

 

"The companies we're supporting must transition from being supported by grants to creating cashflow," Jackson added.

 

WBBA itself touts the program it created called VIP Forums, through which quality investors and strategic partners (VIP's) are invited to Seattle for a showcase of the most promising life science companies and research opportunities.

 

In addition, in spring of 2009 the association formed a non-profit angel network called WINGS, whose role is to close the early-stage funding gap to speed medical-technology innovation "from lab bench to patients."

 

The gathering of industry leaders and others for whom the industry is part of the economic hope for the future will likely hear an upbeat assessment as they review the WBBA's third annual Life Sciences Economic Impact at their gathering on November 18 at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue.

 

Comments from the governor, who will be attending her last WBBA annual conference, and University of Washington President Michael Young, attending his first, are likely to focus on upbeat prospects for the sector's future. But both may also share concerns about the impact of funding availability on that bright future.

 

And a comment from Rivera during an interview this week could set the stage for some discussion among attendees: "I understand and know that these are difficult times, but I hope that our state leaders are strategic in where they place our precious resources, and help this state maintain its competitiveness nationally and globally."

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