Boasting such high-profile members as Texas' George W. Bush, Utah's Mike Leavitt and California's Gray Davis, the Western Governors' Association has quietly built itself into a force in national politics and a boon for the region's economies.
Made up of the chief executives of 18 states (AK, AZ, CA, CO, HI, ID, KS, MT, NE, NV, NM, OR, SD, TX, UT, WA, WY), the WGA's most recent coup came at its winter meeting in Las Vegas, where Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano, the current WGA chairman, announced a high-tech alliance between Western states and universities and massive technology firms like Intel and Silicon Graphics.
"The governors can play a key role in bringing leaders from business, labor and politics together to promote a shift from comparative to competitive advantage. They can also demonstrate leadership by working to modify state incentives and regulations to help firms gain competitive advantage," Cayetano said.
Under the alliance, the governors have asked the high-tech firms to work with universities and state and local governments to come up with a "business plan" that would benefit all parties. A concept paper adopted by the alliance suggests the creation of a 15-20 person council culled from the information, health and biotechnology industries, along with educators and government officials.
"The chance to explore the range of issues facing the council will lead to greater innovations. Those include privacy and security of information, ethics, workforce development and intellectual property rights. Businesses are interested in working with the governors to provide insight on industry changes and directions that impact public policy," Intel President Craig R. Barrett said.
If the recent history of other WGA initiatives is any indication, there is no reason to think that the high-tech alliance won't be a boon for Western states.
Among its successes include the Health Passport Project, which has been recognized as one the most significant examples of smart card technology in the U.S. The project puts reams of health and demographic information on a single card that can be used for several different federal health programs for women and children.
WGA officials say this will give patients more control over, and more responsibility for, the health care that they and their children receive.
The information on the card can only be read by the card holder or, with their permission, by an authorized health care provider. The Health Passport cards are most often used by pregnant women, new mothers and children to receive public health services such as child care, immunizations, and food benefits.
The pilot projects are in place in Bismarck, North Dakota; Cheyenne, Wyoming; and Reno, Nevada. Federal participants include Medicaid, the Centers for Disease Control, Head Start, and the Indian Health Service.
"Our first goal is to see whether this technology can improve health care for parents and their children by having accurate, complete records from doctors and public health programs stored in an easy to use, secure card. We also want to determine if the Health Passport can reduce health-care costs," said North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer, who heads up the project for the WGA.
Another winner for the group is the environmental doctrine known as "Enlibra." Dreamed up by Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, Enlibra attempts to solve environmental disputes through mediation and greater participation in decision-making by both industry and environmental groups.
"I think we invented, by necessity, a means to gain regional consensus to solve problems. The seed of that Enlibra doctrine was the experience I had working with eight states, six Indian tribal nations, three federal agencies and environmental groups and industry. Western Governors has been a place where you can take big ideas and have them incubate, develop and launch," Leavitt said.
Not every undertaking has been a success. Governor Leavitt has worked hard to establish the Western Governors University, which he envisions as an International online university offering accredited degrees in mostly technology fields. The university offers around 300 computer-based courses.
But a little over a year since its founding, WGU has an enrollment of between 150-200 students and an operating budget and startup cost of $13 million.
"I think the hype when something like this is introduced is greater than what can be lived up to in the delivery," said Joni Finney of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a California-based think tank.
Leavitt counters by saying that enrollment should not be the benchmark on which the project is judged.
"We're pioneering here. We haven't succeeded at it yet, but we're clearly the furthest along of anyone who's attempted it. I never get questions about the quality of the degree. I get questions about enrollment, and I think that is a very shallow measure," Leavitt said.
Another failure has been the attempt to create a Western states primary and give the region more say in the presidential nomination process. An effort to group eight states' primaries on the same day in March fizzled, with only Utah, Colorado and Wyoming adopting the March 10 primary date.
The WGA was formed in 1984 in an effort to help western states address the historic changes taking place in the economies and demography of the West.
The association works to identify and address key issues in natural resources, theenvironment, human services, economic development, international relations and public management. Governors select the issues based on regional interest and impact.
The WGA staff then helps the governors to both develop long-term strategies andaddress immediate needs.
According to WGA executive director James M. Souby, the association's main goals are to develop and communicate a regional policy, serve as a leadership forum for Western governors and build a regional capacity to affect national policy.
The WGA funds its initiatives and research projects through the Western Governors' Foundation, which accepts grants and gifts from corporations, foundations and individuals.