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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Do Democrats or Republicans control the West?

States have a historic budget surplus, and how they spend it could depend on whether they’re conservative or liberal

SHARE Do Democrats or Republicans control the West?
SHARE Do Democrats or Republicans control the West?

This is how the West is run: In the 13 westernmost U.S. states, one party controls both the executive and legislative branches.

Flush with federal cash, the region — the fastest-growing in the country — is rebuilding from the disruptions of the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and states’ political leanings will play a role in how they budget for their future.

Republicans run state governments in Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. Democrats run California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington. On a color-coded map, it’s a solid blue contiguous Pacific coast bordered by red Republican country in the Intermountain West and a trio of Democratic flyover states.

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State budgets today are bulked up with federal stimulus from a pair of bills signed by President Joe Biden last year: the American Rescue Plan Act, which allocated $195.3 billion for states to be spent by 2026, and the Infrastructure and Investment and Jobs Act, which will funnel billions to states for projects like bridges, roads, public transportation, broadband and electric vehicle charging stations.

“I think you’re going to see the difference at the margins,” said David Damore, professor and chair of the department of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, of how states spend their budget surplus. “What type of infrastructure? Do we try to do mass transit versus roads? I think you’ll see differences in red states, but it’ll be in the margins.”

“Democrats probably are going to be more interested in investing in urban areas whereas Republicans may be a little less interested in that,” he said.

Many states ended fiscal 2021 with the largest budget surpluses in history, according to Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline, and governors have proposed spending plans that align with party priorities. Republican governors like Utah Gov. Spencer and Idaho Gov. Brad Little called for using their surplus tax relief during their recent state of the state addresses, while in California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ambitious budget proposal includes money for fighting wildfires, incentives to attract teachers and supplemental paid sick leave for workers who test positive for COVID-19, according to CalMatters.

There are areas of consensus. Lobbyists across state capitols mention workforce development, behavioral and mental health and affordable housing as areas of growing interest, according to FiscalNote. In Idaho, education polled highest in a Boise State University survey on the best use of the state’s surplus, and Little has proposed an 11% increase to K-12 education, including teacher pay raises and bonuses, money for literacy programs and $105 million for school health insurance premiums, according to Idaho Education News.

While U.S. population grew at its slowest rate since the founding, the West is growing faster than the national average. Idaho, Utah, Montana and Arizona were all in the top five for states with the highest percentage growth last year, and a number of those new residents came from California, which saw its population fall last year for the first time in its history. In 2020, 58,000 Californians moved to Arizona; 48,000 to Nevada; 47,000 to Washington; 38,000 going to Oregon; 27,000 to Colorado, and 21,000 to Idaho according to U.S. Postal Service change of address requests.

The influx of Californians is on the minds of its neighbors.

“Today, there is an exodus from California,” Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said during his State of the State address. “Make no mistake: We will keep Arizona, Arizona.”

Despite the strong “Don’t California My (Insert Your State Here)” sentiment in the conservative West, the single-party power arrangement in the region is firmly established. Of the 10 Western states holding gubernatorial races this year, just two are rated as competitive by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report: Nevada, where Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak is running for reelection, and Arizona, where candidates are vying to replace Ducey, who is term limited. Everywhere else, the main event will be the primary elections, not the general.

This dynamic means that in many Western states, political diversity is found not between the parties, but inside them, said Jaclyn Kettler, an associate professor of political science at Boise State University.

“What we sometimes see is some of the major kind of ideological divisions that can stall policy sometimes come from within the majority party,” Kettler said.

Contributing: K. Sophie Will