Numbers game

Colorado’s population grew to just over 5 million people during the past decade, according to Census Bureau figures. And its rate of growth — 9.9 percent — was slightly ahead of the national average of 9.7 percent.

Our growth wasn’t quite enough to add an eighth House seat to Colorado’s current complement of seven congressional seats. Even so, Colorado’s steady growth from 2000 to 2010 is welcome news. Consider the fate of several other states.

Illinois, for instance, will see its representation in Congress drop from 19 to 18 House seats, even though its population grew 3.3 percent over the decade. Losing one congressional seat is not a calamity by itself. But, as the Chicago Tribune noted, Illinois had 25 House representatives back in 1960. At 18 seats, its House representation beginning in 2012 will be the lowest it has been since 1872, four years before Colorado became a state.

Illinois’ stagnating population growth is typical of much of the Upper Midwest and Northeast — people abandoning the so-called “Rust Belt” for the South and West.

There are many theories to explain this trend. Better weather certainly plays a role. So do the economy and state policies.

The Chicago Tribune cited serious budget problems, an unfunded public pension system, failing schools and public corruption as reasons people abandon or avoid the Land of Lincoln.

One writer suggested low taxes were a key factor in state’s growth. “Seven of the nine states that do not levy an income tax grew faster than the national average,” wrote Michael Barone.

But Nevada offers a cautionary tale regarding these trends. A warm-weather state with no income tax and — until recently —  abundant opportunity, it has been the fastest-growing state for much of the past two decades. The Census figures show it grew 35 percent in the past decade, the most rapid rate in the country.

But in 2007, the boom began to go bust. An unsustainable real-estate bubble burst, leaving abandoned or half-empty subdivisions and commercial developments. Unemployment in Nevada is now 14.3 percent, the highest in the nation, said The New York Times. An estimated 90,000 people have left the state since 2008.

The Times article quotes a Nevada urban planner who blames much of the state’s problems on unfettered real-estate speculation and a free-market philosophy “without any controls at all.”

But, if Nevada is the poster child for what happens when there is little state control, California represents the other extreme.

High tax rates, heavy-handed state environmental regulations and a big-spending state government that now faces the worst budget shortfall in the country have combined to drive individuals and businesses from the Golden State. For the first time since it was admitted to the union in 1850, California grew so slowly over the past decade that it didn’t gain any congressional representatives.

In contrast to California and Nevada, Texas and Utah grew substantially without falling into massive budget shortfalls. Both also gained congressional seats.

Colorado is somewhere in the middle in this spectrum. It still faces difficult budget issues and its overall tax rates are near the middle of the pack. But people remain eager to move to this state, if there are jobs and economic opportunity.

As a new governor and Legislature assume power in January, with pledges to improve the state’s economy and attract new businesses and jobs, the Census figures offer some insight into what is successful in that regard, and what isn’t.


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