Surging Southwest states ask: Are we growing too fast?

The US Southwest -- after a decade that increasingly saw tumbleweeds and cactuses displaced by tract homes and shopping centers -- is having second thoughts about its rapid growth.

Preliminary 1980 census figures show that Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona were among the nation's fastest growing states in the past decade. What the numbers do not reflect is the increasing awareness in that popular Sunbelt region of the trade-offs associated with rapid growth, according to a number of analysts.

"You won't find people in Arizona standing up and cheering about our growth rate," says a pollster in Phoenix. Arizona's population grew 53 percent from 1970 to 1980, according to the Census Bureau. As a result, the ability to keep up with the demand for public services in some parts of the state "is a day-to-day concern," the pollster adds.

In New Mexico, state officials would like to channel more growth in the 1980s away from major metropolitan areas -- like Albuquerque, where may feel population expansion has been too rapid. Growth is being encouraged in less developed areas of the state.

In Texas, "we are still optimistic about growth, but in many quarters there are questions being raised about how long this [rate of growth] can go on, "says economist Victor Arnold, who is involved in long-range planning for the state. Texas's population grew by an estimated 26 percent over the past decade.

For the most part, the Southwest remains solidly in favor of growth, according to most knowledgeable observers. But in all three states, officials talk of wanting more orderly population expansion this decade.

"The way we see it, growth is inevitable. the question is, what do we do with it," says a spokesman in the Arizona governor's office. The official says water resources and public services have been strained by growth in the state's two most developed areas -- Phoenix and Tucson. The state must seek more geographic diversity in its future growth and more orderly land use, he says.

Mr. Arnold is executive director of Texas 2000, a study group set up by Texas Gov William Clements to project how the state is likely to change over the next 20 years. The group has been in existence for only nine months, but already it offers a sobering view of what lies ahead for the nation's third most populous state, if it continues to grow at the present rate.

"There are going to be all sorts of new pressures. We could have 50 percent more children in our elementary and secondary schools," Arnold projects. Also, to cope with the number of people moving into Texas each year, the state will have to add some 3 million more housing units in the next 20 years and create 170,000 new jobs annually, he asserts.

At the same time, the Lone Star State will be forced to find new sources of revenue as oil and gas production continues to fall. Tax revenues from oil and gas production provide sizable income to state coffers. Rising energy prices have so far helped offset the decline in production, but state officials are not counting on that to continue indefinitely.

Governor Clements has warned that declining oil and gas production and an increassing population will force the state to either reduce government services , raise taxes, or improve the efficiency of state government. He promises to work for greater efficiency.

Brisk population growth in Texas has laready brought something of a backlash. "There is a real trend to wanting slower growth," asserts former Texas Attorney General Waggoner Carr. Mr. Carr is president of Texas 13, a taxpayer group formed in 1979 to lobby state legislators against increasing the size of state government.

The way Carr sees it, Texans are beginning to feel that a rapidly expanding population is bringing more tax burden than tax benefit. "The promise that a larger tax base would lower taxes has proven false," he claims.

In broadest terms, Arnold sees the challenge facing Texas as one of capitalizing on its current rapid economic and population expansion so as to avoid any sharp dowtown in the years ahead. The trick, as he sees it, is to avoid bloating the size of government in the boom years so that when the rate of growth slows the government sector will not become a drag on the local economy.

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