By REBECCA COOK
OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Washington's population growth has inched up slightly, and the improving economy gets the credit - or blame.
The state grew 1.1 percent to nearly 6.2 million people between April 2003 and April 2004, according to estimates from the state Office of Financial Management.
"What we have to offer in contrast to other areas is what really counts," said Theresa Lowe, the state's chief demographer. Washington's unemployment rate has been sinking since last fall. In May, Washington's jobless rate was 6.1 percent, better than Oregon, Alaska, California and four other states.
The stronger economy draws migrants from neighboring states. Driver's licensing data show more Californians are moving to Washington state. Over the past year, the number of people who swapped California driver's licenses for Washington licenses increased by 13 percent, and grew 6 percent for Oregon residents.
The growth trend is tiny at this point - 1.1 percent growth in 2004, compared with .9 percent in 2003 - but Lowe said it could signal the beginning of a "solid rebound" in population growth.
"We're in a good position," Lowe said.
In other population news, state estimates show Spokane is the second-largest city in the state, with approximately 197,400 people. Tacoma is third, with about 196,800 people. Seattle is the biggest city, with a population of roughly 572,600.
Recently released 2003 estimates from the federal Census Bureau put Tacoma in the No. 2 spot, with about 200 more people than Spokane. The distinction of being Washington's second-largest city may be important for bragging rights, but it's realistically impossible to say for sure which city has more people.
"Who knows?" Lowe said, pointing out that both the federal and state numbers are inexact estimates. "We do the best possible job we can, but there's a lot of flexibility here. These are approximations."
The federal Census Bureau uses tax return data to estimate population, Lowe said, while her office relies on a combination of housing, automobile, driver's license and Medicare data. Federal estimates put Washington's growth rate at 1.1 percent in 2003, versus the .9 percent state estimate. Federal estimates for 2004 aren't available yet.
The fastest-growing county in Washington state was Franklin County, population 57,000, which grew 15.5 percent between April 2003 and April 2004, according to state estimates. In 2003, according to the federal Census Bureau, Franklin County was the 11th fastest-growing county in the nation.
People are moving to Franklin County to work at the Hanford nuclear reservation, in neighboring Benton County. Environmental cleanup of the contaminated site is providing about 11,000 jobs this year.
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