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Eighteen Western governors on a video conference call - using C-SPAN and e-mail to communicate among themselves and to the nation - will direct a cohesive assault to make Washington, D.C., listen to Western concerns.

That will be part of Gov. Mike Leavitt's agenda over the next 12 months as he takes over the chairmanship of the Western Governors Association.Leavitt officially takes the helm of the group Tuesday but for several months has been planning his tenure. Most of the 18 governors will be in attendance as the three-day annual convention starts today.

Leavitt, who always approaches a new assignment with a plan, said he has two main objectives. First, expand on his already-announced push to return more power to the states - pushing the federal government's ravenous appetite for power and control back to a proper balance. "That is a broad theme that will take time," said Leavitt, certainly longer than his year's chairmanship of the association.

But Leavitt will use some of his private time with governors and their top staff people to emphasize his "conference of the states" plan - a three-pronged approach that could end in a states' rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For example, the governors held a private dinner Saturday night and will hold other business meetings where Leavitt can talk and listen to his colleagues' concerns about the federal government.

The second part of his agenda is to use technology to bring governors and their aides together to write and present a comprehensive approach to making Western concerns heard in Washington. Leavitt plans governor-to-governor conference calls to form united fronts on hot issues, establishment of an electronic mail system between gubernatorial offices and creation of a network of Western governors' press secretaries.

The public campaign won't stop there. Leavitt wants a coordinated effort to meet with newspaper and TV editorial boards not only in the West, but also with Eastern media leaders.

"The voice of the West simply isn't being heard in Washington, D.C.," said Leavitt. Of the 10 states with the fastest economic growth, a majority are in the West - and part of association. Yet despite the power of those economic engines, Washington has for the most part turned a deaf ear.

For each large project the association takes on - such as its continuing battle over hazardous waste siting and dumping - Leavitt wants a comprehensive, united approach. In years gone by, if the federal government wanted to dump some radioactive waste in one Western state, that state and its congressional delegation tried to stop it, usually with little help. But on such important issues, the West should speak with one voice, pooling its political clout.

To grab the attention media nationwide, Leavitt wants C-SPAN coverage of Western Governors Association meetings, guest editorials written by Western governors in the Eastern press and timely and in-depth issue papers on important topics sent to Washington insiders and media leaders.

On a more personal note, Leavitt will head the association's effort to mediate air quality concerns with officials in northern Mexican states. "To a degree, air quality problems drift across (U.S.) borders and become our air quality concerns. NAFTA will give us some tools in those disputes." But Leavitt agrees that is a tough issue, with more than one American company moving its manufacturing plants just across the border in Mexico to escape stricter U.S. environmental controls.

NAFTA and environmental issues are hot topics at this conference, with EPA administrator Carol Browner addressing a Monday morning meeting and northern Mexico officials and Western Canadian leaders on hand to discuss trade under NAFTA. Leavitt will use that opportunity to stress how centrally located Utah is in the north-south transportation routes between the three nations.

Most of today, Monday and half of Tuesday will be taken up with various meetings, resolution drafting and voting. However, governors and other attendees will have some time for relaxation. Saturday night, governors and top conference sponsors met at a local "castle" for dinner. Monday night will be a cruise on the three-week-old Miss Dixie II, a paddle-wheel boat that will take conferencegoers on an evening lake cruise with dinner and dancing.



Governors group has 18 members

The Western Governors Association has 18 members, stretching from Pacific Coast states and Pacific U.S. territories to Texas and North Dakota. The Denver-based association has a yearly budget of $5.8 million, of which $5.2 million comes from federal and private grants, $558,000 from dues from member states and Pacific territories, like Guam. The annual conference has several dozen corporate sponsors, who donate specifically for the conference. Leavitt guesses it costs about $150,000 to put on the conference. It will be held in Utah next year (it is always held in the home state of the current chairman). Leavitt is looking at Park City as a possible site.