Winging It

Hype makes right at the center for the new west.

He also insists that his board doesn't dictate the center's agenda. His staff is as likely to devote time consulting with one of the "affiliate" members, who pay dues of $195-$250 a year, as it is with one of the $25,000-and-up "founders."

Burgess adds that the center deliberately avoided addressing telecommunications issues for the first five years of its existence, even though he regards the field as "the most important revolution going on in our time--as important as the Gutenberg press." Former staffers say they were instructed to minimize the think tank's ties to US West, for reasons both strategic and economic. "There was always a concern not to look like US West was the sole funder and an effort to get money elsewhere--willy-nilly, sometimes," says one.

So what does US West get out of its investment? Board chairman Trujillo wasn't available for comment, but Burgess says he once asked Jack MacAllister that question. "He said, 'What's good for the West is good for US West,'" Burgess recalls. "It made sense then, and it makes sense now."

Yet in recent years the center has focused increasingly on technologies and lifestyle issues in which US West has a clear financial interest: telemedicine, telecommuting, tele-you-name-it. A center study on "high performance communities" concluded that Rocky Mountain scientific talent could be better utilized if linked by telecommunications into "multistate consortia." An article by a center fellow urged smaller communities to get connected to "broadband telecommunications services" in order to attract the economic stimulus provided by Lone Eagles. More often than not, it seems, the center has taken the position that what's good for US West is good for the West.

Burgess contends the center is "observing" the telecom revolution, not promoting it, but the distinction disappears in his own work. In 1993 he tapped out an overheated column praising US West's $2.5 billion investment in Time Warner. "A large part of the future" had arrived, he announced, thanks to the "visionary leaders" of both companies; the ecstatic piece failed to disclose that its author is an employee of US West. Rocky Mountain News editorial-page editor Vince Carroll later described the column as a "blatant ad" for US West. (The News now identifies Burgess's connection to the company when he writes about US West, but not when he addresses telecom issues in general--as he did in a recent column about doing an "information audit" of his home, which concluded that his TCI cable service was a relative bargain.)

The lopsided support from US West remains a sore point at the center. When asked for a list of the organization's top ten donors and amounts contributed, Wurmstedt refused, saying such disclosure "is a privilege of donors." During a two-and-a-half-hour interview, though, Burgess said that the center's "founder" members contribute between $15,000 and $25,000 a year, with two exceptions: GTE, which donates $50,000 a year, and US West, which ponies up $750,000.

Burgess says he hopes to see US West's contribution reduced to $500,000 in the near future, as the center continues to tap into new funding sources. Yet even the $750,000 figure understates US West's current level of support, since it doesn't include Burgess's salary--which is not listed in the center's public tax filings and may be the most closely guarded secret in the organization.

Tax records do, however, reveal that the center's president continues to wear many hats in his dual role as US West exec and independent think-tanker. The center operates a speakers' bureau, and among the disbursements for fiscal year 1994 was an unspecified portion of the $34,400 that Burgess earned in speaking fees. The money was paid to Burgess and Associates, "a corporation wholly owned by Mr. Burgess."

Over the years, the Center for the New West has taken credit for a number of heroic achievements, from slaying ill-advised energy legislation to standing up for the economic vitality of rural communities. Yet the cause-effect relationship between a think tank's work and public-policy decisions is rarely a straightforward one, and even the center's most solid claims tend to involve triumphs of perception rather than fact.

Late in 1992, as the Clinton transition team began making noises about imposing a cap on carbon dioxide emissions, Burgess rallied the troops into action. The resulting study--financed entirely by the center, Burgess notes, but warmly embraced by its coal-burning-utility donors--argued that capping CO2 at 1990 levels would actually damage the environment by, among other consequences, retarding the development of cleaner coal technologies. The Clinton administration subsequently retreated from proposed carbon and BTU taxes, and victory was declared.

A success story, surely. But Burgess points out that there were more than a hundred studies arguing against the cap before the center unveiled its work at the National Press Club. The center's unique contribution, he says, was to put the issue into terms a layman could understand. Burgess himself made the rounds of energy conferences with two Styrofoam cylinders, illustrating different countries' percentages of present and projected world CO2 emissions--an impressive visual aid, right down to the color scheme (United States, green; China, red; emerging industrialized nations, black).

Another major study, backed by the Ford Foundation and others, set out to refute the pessimistic view of the Great Plains economy put forth by Rutgers University professors Frank and Deborah Popper. In 1987 the Poppers had stirred outrage from Fargo to Amarillo by suggesting that much of the Great Plains was in a state of decline and could fare better if it became a quasi-public-land "Buffalo Commons" devoted to tourism and recreation.

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