Microsoft launches a Cambridge center to push for tech-friendly New England legislation

Gov. Deval Patrick lead the backpedaling after a “tech tax” hit the industry by surprise, leading to a major backlash. The tax was ultimately repealed.
Gov. Deval Patrick lead the backpedaling after a “tech tax” hit the industry by surprise, leading to a major backlash. The tax was ultimately repealed.

Remember the tech tax fiasco of the last few months? The state’s technology sector won in September when the Legislature repealed a new 6.25 percent levy on software services, but the episode exposed a major deficit in the industry’s policy department.

When the tax went into effect in August, many tech professionals said they felt blindsided, even though it was contained in a high-profile transportation bill.

Expect that in the future the tech sector will be more involved in policymaking — before the policies are made — through initiatives like the Microsoft Innovation Policy Center New England, which launches Monday in Cambridge.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The new center is not a direct response to the tech tax saga (it’s been in the works since last spring), but the experience of being taken by surprise and having to fight part of a bill that already passed highlights the need for such a place, said Annmarie Levins, who will head the center at Microsoft’s New England Research and Development facility.

“It’s an example of what can happen if you don’t have the right people speaking about things and talking thoroughly,” said Levins, associate general counsel in Microsoft’s newly created Technology Civic Engagement group. The policy center’s goal is to provide a forum for technology thought leaders to discuss and ultimately agree on policy proposals that the industry can advocate with a unified front.

At the top of the list is computer science education in Massachusetts, which will be the subject of the center’s first discussion panel Tuesday at Microsoft NERD.

“It’s something that Microsoft has been passionate about for years,” Levins said. “In Massachusetts, we have a huge opportunity. We have the best education system in the country. We’re tops in math and science. But even here, where we’ve got 70,000 high school seniors who take AP exams, only 559 in the entire state took the computer science exam in 2012.”