Executive Director’s Notebook: ‘Top Ten List’ of Western Governors’ bipartisan accomplishments in 2020

By Jim Ogsbury

Despite the unprecedented challenges of the past year – and the concomitant demands they imposed on our state leaders – Western Governors continued to pursue their bipartisan policy work through WGA and maintained their irrepressible spirit of bipartisanship, collegiality and positivity.  It is in that same spirit that we offer WGA’s annual 'Top Ten List' for 2020. 

1) Governors Win Battle Over ‘Surplus Water’: Western Governors scored a major policy victory in their ongoing fight to preserve state authority to manage, allocate and protect water resources within their states’ borders. In December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced the rescission of its policy guidance requiring municipal and industrial water users to acquire a water storage contract with the Corps before being granted access to water stored in Corps reservoirs. The withdrawn policy, the so-called “surplus water rule,” conflicted with state water laws and allocation systems, and it effectively prohibited water users from using certain state-issued water rights. WGA has led the opposition to the surplus water rule for years, doggedly promoting the principle of state authority over waters stored in Corps reservoirs.

2) Electric Vehicles Roadmap: Creation of an Electric Vehicles Roadmap the Chair Initiative of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, is designed to achieve expanded regional cooperation on electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure across the West. The initiative was announced in July, and since then WGA has organized multiple work sessions (engaging state officials and EV experts) to deeply examine such issues as charging station regulations; utility infrastructure investments and rate structures; and opportunities to streamline EV infrastructure permitting and siting. In the months ahead, WGA will host a series of initiative webinars and podcasts. A final report will be published in June. 

3) Happy Trails to Retiring Members: WGA bids a fond farewell to a pair of former Association Chairs who are hanging up their spurs upon the end of their terms of service as Governor. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, the dean of America’s Governors, is a fierce champion of the Association and one of the country’s foremost authorities on federalism. Under his leadership, WGA created a 10-Year Energy Vision for the West, the basis for the Association’s energy policy since 2013. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, an energetic leader of WGA throughout his two terms of service, created the Western Governors’ National Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative. A number of the initiative’s recommendations have been enacted into law or incorporated into regulatory frameworks, and the Governor’s work will have positive impacts on public land management for decades to come. The Association also appreciates the service of American Samoa Gov. Lolo Moliga, who is leaving office after having served as territorial Governor since 2013.

4) The Rural West, Reimagined: Reimagining the Rural West is the initiative of WGA’s immediate past Chair, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. The project – organized around the major pillars of opportunity, connectivity and community – examines challenges in rural economic development, infrastructure, and quality of life. The Special Report of the Initiative, published in July, offers more than a dozen recommendations to support rural communities and promote their prosperity.

5) Waging War on Invasive Species: The Governors intensified their assault on invasive species, which continue to threaten the lands of the West. Under a Shared Stewardship Agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, WGA published a Toolkit for Invasive Grass Management in the West in July. The toolkit is designed to combat the spread of invasive annual grasses by synthesizing and disseminating best practices and providing a new geospatial data layer to help states and local land managers assess invasive annual grasses and identify new cross-boundary collaborative projects. In December, the Governors launched the Invasive Species Data Mobilization Campaign to encourage land managers and stakeholders to enter previously unavailable data into new or existing invasive species data management platforms using recommendations developed by WGA and invasive species data experts. 

6) WGA Policy Victories: WGA continued to promote Western Governors’ policy priorities in Washington, D.C., urging the federal government to collaborate with states on a broad spectrum of issues. In 2020, Congress directed agencies to work with states to reduce wildfire threats, protect water supplies and manage wildlife. Congress further encouraged federal agencies to work directly with WGA on collaborative conservation efforts. With respect to healthcare, Congress adopted a gubernatorial recommendation on federal privacy requirements that will improve care coordination and reduce stigma for patients with substance use disorders. Congress also passed legislation to improve broadband data mapping, giving federal agencies a more accurate picture of internet service gaps in the rural West. 

7) Western Governors’ Foundation: The directors of WGA encouraged the Western Governors’ Foundation, the Association’s philanthropic arm, to create the Western Governors’ Leadership Institute. The foundation board (which includes current Governors David Ige and Steve Bullock, as well as former Governors Dennis Daugaard, Matt Mead, Brian Sandoval and C.L. “Butch” Otter) has enthusiastically embraced the project, which is designed to recognize and encourage youth leadership. The Foundation has also launched the sixth annual Celebrate the West art competition for high school students, which challenges young artists to create original works of art inspired by their state or otherwise evocative of the West.  See a gallery of the 2020 winners and learn how to enter the 2021 competition. And while you’re at it, meet the first winner of the Chairman’s Award for Outstanding High School Art Teacher.

8) Governors' Major Policy Pronouncements: Bipartisan policy development is the lifeblood of WGA. During the past year, Western Governors’ adopted eight detailed policy resolutions addressing:  improvements to the state-federal relationship; utilization of state data in federal decision making; national forest and rangeland management; species conservation and the Endangered Species Act; wild horse and burro management; western agriculture; rural development; and broadband connectivity.

9) 2020 Winter Meeting: The first-ever virtual Winter Meeting of WGA, conducted in December and hosted by WGA Chair, Oregon Governor Kate Brown, offered a special opportunity for Western Governors to engage with each other, WGA’s sponsor community, and other friends of the West. The meeting, attended by more than 230 WGA sponsors and others, featured dynamic roundtable sessions on COVID-19, wildfire response, and tele-mentoring. The Secretary of Health, Alex Azar, addressed Governors on the importance of state-federal cooperation with respect to COVID-19 response. Governors Doug Burgum of North Dakota and David Ige of Hawaii joined Microsoft president Brad Smith for a special conversation about technological innovation and deployment. Other participating Governors included WGA Vice Chair Brad Little of Idaho; former Chairs Gary Herbert of Utah and Steve Bullock of Montana; and Governors Michelle Lujan Grisham og New Mexico, Mark Gordon of Wyoming, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Jared Polis of Colorado, Steve Sisolak of Nevada, Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, Laura Kelly of Kansas, and Lou Leon Guerrero of Guam. 

10) Out West: The digital footprint of Western Governors was expanded in 2020 with the launch of Out West, the official podcast of WGA. Since its debut in February, WGA has published 13 episodes, which have been downloaded more than 2,000 times. In addition to an eight-part series on the Reimagining the Rural West Initiative, the podcast has highlighted best practices for improving disability employment, the use of managed fire to restore western lands, a roundtable discussion of WGA's Annual Report, and efforts to contain the spread of invasive Murder Hornets. In order to further spread the gospel of gubernatorial bipartisanship, I had an expansive conversation in September with noted western historian Patty Limerick as part of her “Lunch with Limerick” videocast series.  Listen to Bipartisanship Happens: How Western Governors Set an Example for the Nation’s Leaders.

Jim Ogsbury is the Executive Director of the Western Governors' Association. Contact him at 303-623-9378 or send an email to [email protected]. Get the latest news about the West and its governors by following the Western Governors' Association on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn.

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