Big Sky Science
__________ O'CONNOR CENTER __________
the biennial lawmaking session got under way in Helena
"I've worked really hard at developing a reputation for not having a political agenda," says Swanson, the associate director of UM's O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West. "When I address legislators or other decision makers, I try to provide a very descriptive type of presentation, relying heavily on good data and information. I'm not trying to unduly influence legislators. I'm trying to respond to their need for this type of information."
Swanson spent time in November and December participating in economic development seminars and meetings in Billings, Great Falls and Missoula. Area legislators and other business and community leaders were invited to listen to Swanson's analysis of the Montana economy.
The sessions were well attended, with state lawmakers and local government officials taking part in all three cities. Swanson was even invited to give a recent presentation at the Legislature to a joint meeting of House and Senate business and economic development committees.
"I found there was a huge thirst by legislators for good information and analysis on the economy," Swanson says. "I think they are really hungry for any information that will help them make decisions."
The message Swanson delivers to legislators is not the one of doom and gloom that is often associated with the Montana economy. "I generally am optimistic and show them that some parts of the state are doing very well - changing in very positive ways - and some parts of the state are not," Swanson says.
One of the key points of his presentation, he says, is to stress that Montana cannot be viewed as a whole when it comes to economics.
"Montana is a very large and almost dysfunctional state where you've got such different circumstances and conditions and trends going on in the economy as you go from one place to the next," he says. "When you pull together legislators from this large dysfunctional geography, it's too hard to come up with a common agenda or common set of policies that's applicable to the whole state because of that diversity."
To analyze the economy of Montana, Swanson says the state must be sliced into at least three regions:
"Trends are much different in each of these regions," he says. "I think we spend too much time in Montana talking about Montana. Montana is not an economy. It's this large geography that contains small places and many different types of places in probably seven to 10 different subregional economies - in some ways going in opposite directions."
Swanson says the vast majority of the economic growth taking place in Montana is occurring in seven "city regions" - places such as Missoula, Billings and Great Falls and their immediate commuting and trade areas.
He also says it's important for legislators to look forward when it comes to the economy. "We have a propensity in Montana whenever our economy's in trouble to look at the future through the rearview mirror. You can't do it. So one of the messages is to look at where the economy is going, not where it's been if you are trying to develop an economic policy that has some hope of being of use to the state of Montana."
Swanson told legislators that Montana's environment is the chief economic asset in much of the state. "If we fail to recognize that economic growth is largely associated with the environmental amenities and quality of life in Montana, it's like having blinders on," he says.
Education and human resource development also must be given priority to stimulate economic development. "Well-designed, well-funded adaptive systems for education and work force development are essential to economic prosperity," Swanson adds.
The legislative prep seminars dovetailed nicely with his duties at UM, according to Swanson, helping him take his research into the community and across the region.
"My job at the University is to do research on the region's economy," he says. "By doing this, you feel like you're contributing something - just by being with decision-makers who find this useful. ... It's very rewarding. And I think it's constructive for the legislators. I think it's useful in terms of giving them more preparation before they go to Helena."
BY GARY JAHRIG