In an era of peak partisanship in Washington, D.C., Western state governors gathered last week at the Western Governors’ Association meeting in Las Vegas to announce eight new policies, asserting state sovereignty over water planning, radioactive waste, shares of tax revenue from federal lands, regulating coal and managing bonding on mine sites. Our correspondent looks at ways that western governors collaborate through this regional governmental association. — Eds.

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — The western political class descended on the Las Vegas Strip last week as several western governors, including Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter along with dozens of key bureaucrats, non-profit managers, issue activists, policy experts and lobbyists came to Sin City for the Western Governors’ Association Winter Meeting.

I was in town for two reasons. First, to do what seminal political scientist Richard Fenno calls “soaking and poking” as I refined ideas for an ongoing research project on gubernatorial politics. And, second, as a representative of Boise State University’s Public Policy Research Center, with the charge of scoping out policy priorities and prospects for partnership with the Western Governors’ Association.

The WGA is a non-partisan organization of western governors, who represent nineteen states and three territories. The organization provides an opportunity for regional leaders to collaborate on finding and advancing solutions to common problems, particularly with respect to challenges involving the national government and international relations and trade.

WGA 2013 meeting

Western Governors’ Association, 2013
Western governors attending the 2013 WGA meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada (from left): Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (WGA Chairman), Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (WGA Vice Chairman), Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

This winter’s meeting focused largely on energy, economic development and natural resources, topics inspired by WGA’s main summer meeting earlier in the year, as I learned from a WGA staffer during an evening reception hosted by the organization. The reception was itself a microcosm of the larger meeting, as I encountered a diverse lot of professionals, ranging from lobbyists for CITI to directors of regional economic groups and advocates of alternative energy.

The WGA meeting provided a chance for the western governors in attendance to identify points of commonality in their shared fights against key western policy challenges such as fire suppression and the control of invasive species, as well as the opportunity to break bread (and attend the Las Vegas rodeo!) together. For another take on shared fights, see this Las Vegas Review Journal article on Western states and Obamacare.During work sessions, they engaged influential policy makers and public administrators including: Alain Houde, a representative of the Quebec government in Canada; Eruviel Avila Villegas, governor of the State of Mexico, which is the fifth most populous state in all of North America; Robert Bonnie, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Neil Kornze, director of the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management, and Sally Jewell, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The session with Secretary Jewell specifically provided Governor Otter with an opportunity to inquire, before a packed ballroom, when the Obama Administration would build the inspection and decontamination stations designed to thwart expansion of invasive zebra and quagga mussels, for which $1 million dollars has been appropriated thanks to efforts by, among others, Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson. Otter supported his point by brandishing an Idaho license plate that had been soaked in Lake Mead, during which time it had been covered in invasive quagga mussels to the point of complete disfigurement. Although she stated she couldn’t take the license plate back with her (after all, transporting invasive species is illegal), Secretary Jewell made clear her awareness of the problem and promised to look into the contamination station matter. Otter, seemingly satisfied with her response, replied that he had originally thought to send the encrusted license plate back with her to the nation’s capital, but figured she had enough nuisances to deal with in Washington, D.C. already.

Meanwhile, the governors at the WGA had their own work to do. They announced a series of eight new policy resolutions. The resolutions focused on multiple issue areas, from water quality to rural schools, and generally served to identify shared commitments as well as staking claims of authority in areas where the federal government is often a collaborator and occasionally a competitor. The resolutions included statements on water policy, transportation and disposal of radioactive waste, the need for the federal government to honor federal land royalties and leasing revenues even in times of sequester, the states’ role in regulating coal combustion waste and mine reclamation. Each state aggregated its own habitat criteria for the regional mapping app, using data consistent across the west.

WGA CHAT Mapping Tool

A view of the new CHAT tool from the WGA.

The WGA also introduced a new online tool, called the Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool (CHAT), which is the first regional CHAT in the United States. The purpose of this tool is to help identify crucial fish and wildlife habitats in order to help plan development projects such as energy corridors and transmission routes. Previously, states such as California, Washington and Wyoming had their own state-specific CHAT, but the new tool promises to facilitate planning and development throughout the west in previously unimagined ways.

The WGA’s new CHAT provides an ideal example of the organization’s promise. Working together across party lines and state borders, western governors are able to consider broader perspectives while attending to the policy challenges that face their constituents. The WGA provides a necessary and invaluable institutional infrastructure to develop those kinds of regional partnerships, including university-based research collaborations.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.