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Co-authored by Rick O'Donnell and Floyd Ciruli for the Center for the New West's Western Political Outlook report. The report was prepared following the second annual Western Political Outlook, titled "Hot Spots, Wedge Issues and Front Runners: New west Presidential Politics," as forum held September 29-30, 1999 at the El Pomar Penrose House Conference Center in Colorado Springs. This guest column is excerpted from the full text, available from the Center of the New West.

Mr. O'Donnell is a Center for the New West fellow and heads the Governor's Office of Policy and Initiatives.

Western States Share Dilemma on Growth

At a glance, the West's largely Democratic coastal states appear politically distinct from the more Republican mountain states. But a closer look reveals important similarities among Western states that transcend party dominance.

It's true that partisan differences are striking: Democrats hold the governorship in all three coastal states, and control four of six U.S. Senate seats. Republicans have the governor's office in every mountain state, and control 12 of 16 U.S. Senate seats. California appears to be a one party state—Democrats dominate the state legislature and most statewide elected offices. Conversely, Republicans dominate Idaho, Utah, Arizona and increasingly Colorado at almost all levels. In fact, the Rocky Mountain West is more Republican, at least in terms of elected officials, than anywhere else in the country—including the South, where Democratic governors retained and gained seats in 1998.

But focusing too much on which political party wields power in which state obscures tremendous similarities that stretch across the West, from California to Colorado. First and foremost among these similarities is a populist streak that manifests itself in a number of ballot initiatives aimed at curbing government power and programs.

Californians voted in 1996 to end the state's affirmative action programs and in 1998 to require that public school instruction be in English. Colorado voters supported term limits in 1990, tax limits in 1992 and campaign finance limits in 1996. Washington voters decided in November 1999 to require voter approval for all future tax increases.

The West is also home to large—and increasing—numbers of independent voters with little allegiance to either party. A quarter of Oregon voters and a third of Coloradans don't affiliate with any party. Ross Perot scored some of his highest voter percentages in 1992 in Western states: 27 percent in Idaho and Utah, and 26 percent in Montana, Nevada and Wyoming.

The coastal and mountain states in the West share many of the same issues, and none more so than growth. With the exception of Wyoming, debates about growth top Western agendas. Growth is more salient in the West for a simple reason: It is the fastest growing region in the country. With the exception of Florida and Georgia, the top ten fastest growing states in America lie west of the Mississippi River. After the 2000 census, projections show that the West will pick up the majority of new Congressional seats and electoral votes—wresting them from the Midwest and Northeast.

Population growth in the West is driven by two main forces: immigration from outside the United States (in particular to California); and migration from other states (in particular, from the Midwest and Northeast, and from California into the mountain states).

Unlike many issues on which one party is considered to have the advantage (Democrats on health care and Republicans on reducing government spending) growth is neither party's sole purview. Politicians who can develop and sell to voters a game plan for growth will likely see their political fortunes soar during the next decade.

It is important to note that the West is the most urbanized part of the country; close to 90 percent of Westerners live in major metropolitan areas. Numbers elsewhere in the nation hover between 60 percent and 80 percent. It may be more accurate to think of the West as the most suburbanized part of the country. With the exception of such cities as San Francisco, metropolitan areas of the West were in essence born as suburbs without true, massive central cities. Think of Phoenix, Salt Lake, Colorado Springs and even Los Angeles—a series of suburbs rather than one urban core.

Both Republicans and Independents battle growth issues with these suburban voters in mind. Democrats tend to approach the growth issue from an environmental perspective, focusing on loss of open space, farms and ranches and the "detrimental" effects of urban sprawl on the environment — an approach that can resonate with voters. Colorado and Oregon recently dedicated lottery funds to open space; Californians defeated a water initiative that was criticized as promoting growth. And this year, Californians supported bonds for parks and wetlands protection.

Republicans tend to view the issue relative to infrastructure: Growth can cause traffic congestion and increase the need to invest in the transportation system. In Colorado, for instance, the major issue confronting voters in the 1998 gubernatorial campaign and again in a 1999 referendum was reducing traffic congestion. Both times the Republicans held the advantage.

Both of these approaches can be perilous. Democrats can ride the open space and environmental side of the growth debate only so far before they run up against some harsh realities: Even as the West's population booms, air quality in cities is improving and, in the final analysis, the West is almost all open space. In between the West's cities lie millions of acres of forests, mountains, deserts and open space. And Western voters in recent years have not embraced wholeheartedly growth caps or growth boundaries if they risk hurting economic development, job creation or affordable housing.

Republicans, on the other hand, face a dilemma on growth. Investing in infrastructure to relieve crowded schools and crowded highways may win votes, but doing so usually means increased government spending. And more spending is not at the top of most Republicans' lists. In fact, government investment in infrastructure is increasingly difficult in the West as more states impose tax and spending limits. Republicans often counter that infrastructure can be privatized or at least built by the private sector, yet there are no successful Western examples of major privatized airports, highways or school construction.

The political outlook for the West is one in which each party has distinct advantages and disadvantages. Neither has a natural lock on the biggest issue facing the region: growth.

However, Republicans can feel confident in their control of the Rocky Mountain West. They hold 536 to 277 of state legislative seats in the eight mountain states. They hold all of the governorships. And there seems little that would put this at risk during the near future.

On the other hand, Republicans must look at California with deep despair. Due to its size (California alone has a population of 32 million to the combined mountain states' population of 17 million) its loss is a tremendous blow to Republicans. Democrats reign virtually unchallenged in California, and it may be years before Republicans are able to rebuild and start to win again in this important coastal state.

Related topic: "Anti-Politics of the West"