Out-of-state driver's licenses surrendered in Spokane County held nearly steady in 2012, following gains in the previous two years, but some economists are expecting a surge of in-migration if the job outlook here gains strength.
Electronic records posted by the Washington state Department of Licensing show that 8,180 out-of-state licenses were surrendered in the county in 2012, which is down 21 licenses, or 0.3 percent from a year earlier. The 2011 and 2010 totals were 1 percent and 13 percent higher compared with their respective year-earlier counts.
The 2012 total still was the second highest since 2007, when 8,276 out-of-state licenses were surrendered in Spokane County. Drivers new to the state typically surrender their licenses and obtain Washington licenses as part of the process of establishing residency.
Grant Forsyth, chief economist for Spokane-based Avista Corp., says he periodically follows driver's license surrender numbers as one of a number of population-trend indicators that help forecast customer numbers and energy demands.
Forsyth says he expects to see license surrenders and corresponding in-migration rise as employment improves here and the housing market improves throughout the country.
"As the housing market stabilizes, it might be easier to sell a home and relocate as job opportunities present themselves," he says. "Usually there's a one-year lag between when we see surges in employment growth and an increase in population growth."
Even though 2012 out-of-state driver's license numbers were nearly level with the previous year's total, calculations by the state Office of Financial Management indicate net migration into Spokane likely edged upward, says Patrick Jones, executive director of the Eastern Washington University Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis.
"More people were moving into the county than were moving out of the county," Jones says.
Most new residents here have moved to the region because of job opportunities, he says, adding. "This isn't a retirement destination like Florida."
Doug Tweedy, Spokane-based regional economist for the Washington state Employment Security Department, says the labor force is growing here.
"Employment is up, but as opportunities increase, more people are out there looking for those jobs," Tweedy says.
Spokane County also is showing an attractive mix of jobs, he says.
"Spokane is gaining some good jobs in skilled industries like manufacturing and health care," he says.
In March, Spokane County gained, 3,200 jobs compared with the year-earlier month, while the unemployment rate also improved to 9.1 percent, compared with a 9.7 percent unemployment rate in the year-earlier month.
Statewide, out-of-state license surrenders were down 2.1 percent in 2012 and down 5.6 percent in 2011 following a 23 percent increase in 2010.
Glenn Crellin, Seattle-based associate director for research at the University of Washington Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies, doesn't attribute much significance to the difference between the drivers' license surrender rates in Spokane County and statewide as far as in-migration trends go.
"A significant part of the population growth in the state is in the greater Seattle area, and it's concentrated in the city where the rate of vehicle ownership is lower, and there may be less pressure felt to turn in driver's licenses," Crellin says.
Crellin says the in-migration rate into Washington is higher than in surrounding states, particularly Oregon and California, because the job market is improving more rapidly in Washington.
Biomedical and high-tech jobs are driving job growth, and some of that growth is spilling over into Spokane County, he says.
The highest number of out-of-state license surrenders in Spokane County consistently has come from California, followed by Idaho, Oregon, and Montana, respectively.
California drivers surrendered 1,243 licenses in Spokane County in 2012, which was a three-year low. That number for Spokane County alone, though, was still nearly five times the total number of driver's licenses surrendered from all counties in Washington state to California in 2012.
"California has had challenges in recent years after decades of leading the country in population growth," Crellin says.
Other states collectively reported they received far fewer driver's licenses from Washington state than Washington receives from all other states. In 2012, a total of 41,376 Washington state driver's licenses were reported surrendered outside of the state, the lowest total in more than 20 years. Conversely, out-of-state licenses surrendered in all of Washington state in 2012 totaled 147,674.
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