America's Power Base Tilts Toward Rockies

An exploding population and phenomenal job-creation rates help the Mountain West gain political and economic clout.

Like the tectonic plates that turned the Rockies into one of the nation's grandest mountain ranges, numerous demographic and economic forces have transformed the states that straddle those mountains into the most dynamic region in the United States.

And perhaps more revealing, even as the underlying national economic forces that created that dynamism cool off, this region is left with an elevated view it has never had before. Unlike past periods of boom, this one shows no sign of imminent bust.

The result is a region, stretching from the ski slopes of Idaho to the historic adobes of Santa Fe, N.M., that in the view of many analysts is poised for much greater clout and standing in national affairs.

"There is a shift of power from the East to the South and now to the West," says Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt (R), who promises even greater gains for his region because, "we're just moving into our most productive phase."

Regional influence is often subtle and long term. The rise of the South and the Sun Belt states in the post-Word War II decades may have its strongest manifestation today, with leadership in the White House and Congress dominated by Southerners.

No one expects a Rocky Mountain sweep of national officeholders anytime soon. But the region's sway is unmistakably rising.

When Alan Simpson of Wyoming went to the US Senate in 1978, he says, "they thought I'd crawled out from a cave." Twenty years later, the retired senator and director of Harvard's Institute of Politics says of the Western region: "It's better understood now."

But the region wants more than understanding. In November, representatives from seven western mountain states will meet in Utah to try to decide on a common and early-in-the-selection-process date for a regional presidential primary in 2000.

The effort is led by Utah's Governor Leavitt and Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who also happens to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Other states planning to attend are Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, and Arizona.

Separately, legislation is on the desk of Gov. Pete Wilson (R) to move California's presidential primary to the first Tuesday in March. Oregon and Washington are considering joining forces with California for a West Coast regional primary.

According to Leavitt, the aim is to reverse the age-old process of presidential selection moving from east to west. Iowa and New Hampshire would remain the starting guns of the process, but serious delegate selection would then swing to California and other Western states before migrating east.

A louder political voice

While a stronger hand in presidential selection in 2000 is only a hope at this stage, greater political clout beyond that date is a certainty.

The 2000 census will enumerate the spectacular growth of the Western states, ranging from New Mexico's 14 percent to Nevada's 40 percent expansion since 1990. And with that population growth will come reapportionment of the seats in the US House of Representatives.

The forecast is that 11 seats in the House will migrate, largely from states in the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West. The Mountain West states are projected to gain six of those 11 seats.

Most of the states of the Mountain West (loosely defined as including Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona) are no strangers to rapid growth. In the 1970s, skyrocketing energy prices led to a domestic boom in many of these resource-rich states. But as prices crashed in the 1980s, much of the region slid downward, repeating a boom-bust cycle common throughout its modern history.

Today, as a general rule, the region's economies are more diverse and global. At a recent conference here of economists from 11 Western states, all reported beginning to feel sprinkles from the Asia thunder clouds. Arizona's exports are down 20 percent this year, compared with last. California's overall economic growth is slowing and will throttle down further in 1999. Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon are all growing more slowly.

But more remarkable was the degree to which the region is now able to take a slowdown in Asia and slumping commodity prices in its stride.

Paul Sommers, director of the Northwest Policy Center at the University of Washington, recalls how a decade ago the Northwest's growth strategy was centered on commodities. Today, he says, "the overall pace of growth is really being set by high tech, especially software."

Job gains: leading the way

The last decade has been remarkable. Rapid population gains have been matched by a stunning growth in jobs. Employment grew by about 20 percent for the country as a whole between August 1997 and August 1998, the latest figures available from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet that 20 percent is dwarfed by the job gains in the Western mountain states. Nevada - 71 percent; Utah - 55 percent; Idaho - 49 percent. Of the top 10 states in terms of job growth for that decade, seven were Mountain West states.

In one sense, the nation's center of gravity shifted westward many decades ago, as California grew into a population and economic behemoth.

And while the relationship between California and its neighbors remains close economically and demographically, the other Western states are cutting their own distinct profile. They are struggling to preserve their open spaces and frontier independence in the face of dramatic growth, and searching for development formulas that avoid some of the traps fallen into in California.

"Frankly, one of our great dilemmas is a lot of our newcomers aren't enthusiastic about others discovering the place and moving in," says Utah's Leavitt. But even if the U-Hauls were to stop, expansion seems inevitable, given the youthful demographics of places like Utah, where there are 49 school children for every 100 workers. "Here, growth is just inherent," says Leavitt.

'One of our great dilemmas is a lot of our newcomers aren't enthusiastic about others ... moving in.'

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