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Western issues loom over East

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, January 26, 1996

As the Clinton administration begins to focus on the domestic agenda, Western issues loom large — in part because the West is experiencing major changes. These changes include rapid urbanization (most of the states of the West are among the nation’s most urbanized, measured by the percentage of people living in communities over 15,000) and economic diversification, shown by the expansion of manufacturing, business and professional services and tourism, recreation and retirement industries. The West also relies increasingly on human resources, where a work-ready labor force, high levels of educational attainment, a strong work ethic and good colleges and universities are a major attraction for industries to expand or relocate in the West.

While all these changes make the West more like the rest of the country in some ways, there are big differences. First, the federal government is a major land owner in the West, owning more than 50% of the land in many western states. Second, there are growing conflicts in the West and in Congress about issues important to the region. These include:

  • access to public lands, which affects mining, grazing, tourism and recreation and is symbolized by efforts to raise grazing fees, revise the 1872 mining law and new Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s opposition to the doctrine of “multiple use” of public lands.
  • water and the desire by many in Congress to advance the doctrine of “reserve water rights” for the federal government and to pre-empt state water law so that more water can flow to urbanized areas in general and to California in particular.
  • the permanent storage of nuclear waste, crucial to nearly all the Western states because they have important nuclear installations (e.g., Colorado, Idaho and Washington) or are potential waste disposal sites (New Mexico and Nevada).
  • the solution of the health care crisis in a way that is sensitive to the special circumstances of small towns and sparsely populated areas where “managed competition” and other health care reform options may not work so well.
  • trade policy, including ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which will increase jobs, reduce illegal immigration and promote economic development in the West.
  • infrastructure and especially the development of scenic highways for a growing tourism industry and north-south transportation corridors to take full advantage of growing commercial relations among the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
  • environmental management issues — and especially the impact of a number of issues emerging on the national agenda: reauthorization of the endangered species act and its impact on forest products and other industries in the West; proposals for carbon taxes, which would have a major impact on the West’s coal chain industries (coal mines, railroads, ports and utilities) where there has been a $100 billion investment since the Fuel Use Act of 1978, which mandated the expansion of coal-fired power generation.
  • the certification of additional Indian Tribes, gaming on tribal lands, and a host of other issues related to Native Americans.

Unfortunately, as Western issues wax, Western influence has waned in Congress owing to the displacement of westerners on key committees, the dramatic loss of seniority in Congress, and the growing influence of special interests outside the West.

On the other hand, Western Senators are trying to strengthen the Western U.S. Senate Coalition. And the West is important to Clinton politically. Clinton-Gore broke the Republican’s lock on the West, winning more electoral votes in the West (96) than they won in their own backyard in the South (47). These 96 electoral votes accounted for more than 25% of his total vote in the electoral college. Presumably, these victories in the West will count for something as Western issues rise on the national agenda.

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