CHEYENNE – In a message delivered Tuesday to state lawmakers as they convened virtually for the start of this year’s general session, Gov. Mark Gordon promised to continue his defense of Wyoming’s fossil fuel industries while reiterating the state must find a way to stabilize its revenue streams.
The governor typically delivers a State of the State address at the onset of the Legislature’s session, but the message delivered Tuesday was not a State of the State address, which Gordon plans to deliver when the Legislature reconvenes sometime later this spring.
In his message Tuesday, Gordon ran through several topics involving the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic since it began last spring. However, of primary concern, as Gordon put it, was the state’s budget, which includes roughly $500 million in proposed cuts to programs and services after long-term declines in the coal industry, coupled with the economic fallout of the pandemic, brought Wyoming’s revenues to abysmally low levels last year.
While he has previously mentioned his potential interest in the repeal of the state’s existing sales tax exemptions, Gordon made no mention of any tax proposals during his message Tuesday, instead emphasizing that any action must be taken “smartly, fairly and decisively.”
“Far more than a simple discussion between cuts or enhancements, Wyoming must look for ways to stabilize the booms and busts that come from a focused revenue source,” Gordon said. “We need to streamline our accounts by having one checking and one savings account to create more transparency during these difficult times.”
Some lawmakers were disappointed in Gordon’s omission of any revenue discussions in his address. In a news conference with reporters Tuesday afternoon, House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, said the budget proposal highlights the need for Wyoming to change its tax structure.
“There’s an old saying that says something along the lines of, ‘Don’t tell me about your values or what you care about, show me your budget,’” Connolly said. “This is a budget that we have in front of us that hurts critically needed services for our people in our communities. Health care has been slashed. Substance abuse, mental health services slashed … so we must do better, and we must not accept this budget.”
Other lawmakers noted some newfound reasons for optimism with the state’s budget. The latest projections from the state’s Consensus Revenue Estimating Group, a team of economists and industry experts, were also released Tuesday, showing an increase in the state’s forecasted revenue of roughly $82 million over previous CREG projections, largely due to an uptick in sales and use tax collections.
“I think that (CREG report) provides us in the Legislature a few more options, as we look at the budget that will sit before us very soon,” House Majority Floor Leader Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, said during the news conference. “I know from my perspective, there’s a handful of programs in the Department of Health, that if the (CREG) report is good enough, then we need to do something.”
Newly elected House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, also said he would be open to reexamining some of the proposed cuts.
During his message, Gordon also briefly touched on higher education, arguing Wyoming “must look for ways to better benefit from a more diversified economy, and essential to that is a stronger workforce.”
“Accordingly, I have asked the presidents of our community colleges and our university to come together and develop a proposal for how our institutions of higher education across our state can better coordinate resources to help provide workers the resources they need to live and thrive in an evolving economy,” Gordon said.
However, his lack of comments on revenue options while discussing economic diversification drew further pushback from Connolly.
“What the governor didn’t address well enough is the need for us to not only diversify the economy, but to diversify how we think about revenue streams, as well as our role in the national economy,” Connolly said.
“We could be the center of the nation in terms of doing cutting-edge work when it comes to rural economies, but we also have to think about how we are going to generate revenue for supporting them,” she continued. “And that’s something that the governor, I think, didn’t address well enough while kind of bolstering up on our legacy industries.”
While expressing some concern about the incoming Biden administration’s impacts on Wyoming, Gordon maintained confidence in the state’s key energy industries, stating “we can’t – we won’t – let the misguided actions of special interests and federal agencies rob our future.”
“Let me be clear, our position remains unchanged: We will always defend our state and protect her interests through every legal, political, business and technology option available to us,” Gordon said.
Gordon said he plans to work in tandem with Wyoming’s congressional delegation to promote the state’s mining and extraction industries, as well as the potential for carbon capture technology. He said his team has “good reason to believe we will continue to receive Department of Energy support in the coming years” on the state’s carbon capture endeavors.
“This technology provides a means to continue to use our fossil fuels while also reducing CO2 emissions. It might even make CO2 valuable for other uses,” Gordon said. “The bottom line is that this technology is a priority because it will help keep jobs here in Wyoming and assure a better future for our kids.”
Gordon said he plans to unveil more policy initiatives in the coming weeks.