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Natural Resources & Energy

Committee Expands Programs To Keep Wyoming Businesses Afloat

Several members of the Joint Minerals Committee meeting over Zoom for the first time before the Special Session
Wyoming Legislature Youtube

The Joint Minerals, Business & Economic Development Interim Committee amended a bill that will determine how federal relief funds will eventually reach Wyoming businesses. Among other changes, the committee decided to double the allotted funds from $25 million to $50 million available.

That money will fund three programs: the first is a stipend to small businesses impacted directly by the pandemic, the second a loan with forgiveness options for businesses with up to 100 employees, and the last a reimbursement for businesses with COVID-19 related expenses.

If the bill passes during the Wyoming Legislature's special session on May 15 and 16, the programs would be administered by the Wyoming Business Council, which had raised concerns about the need for additional funds.

Public testimony included several business owners and advocates detailing the economic impact of COVID-19. They raised concerns about the programs including that non-profits may not qualify, that those who did receive certain federal relief don't qualify, and that a loan may be difficult to handle versus a grant.

One sticking point was related to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a loan to help keep businesses' workforce employed.  The bill initially looked to only distribute loans to businesses that had not received PPP funds.

Dave Teubner, the owner of Warehouse Twenty One in Cheyenne, an ad agency, said PPP was a huge help, "but it only covered payroll and facilities and utilities. It's not a replacement of income in any way."

A later amendment removed the PPP-related requirement.

Non-profits also voiced concern that the bill did not specifically include 501(c)(3) organizations. Terri Watson, president of NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School based out of Lander, felt her organization had fallen through the cracks of the federal CARES Act and worried the same will happen in-state.

"We do have concerns with the bill as written because it offers no assistance to a business like us," she said. "It's missing key aspects of helping businesses in tourism and recreation that don't have another source of assistance."

Watson said her organization did not qualify for PPP and there's had to be an 85 percent reduction in staff.

An amendment explored the possibility of specifically including 501(c)(3) organizations as eligible businesses, but it failed. The Legislative Service Office explained non-profits could be considered "business."

Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, brought up how expensive it is for companies to pay for COVID-19 related safety expenses like cleaning supplies and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

"You're looking at operators, especially some of the larger ones, are going to be laying out significant money to keep up their cleaning supplies, their personal protective supplies… to the tune of roughly, for some of our larger trona operations, an average about $100,000 a month. So, it's a big deal," he said.

Entering the committee hearing, the reimbursement program had a cap of $200,000 per company. An amendment from Ranchestor Sen. Bo Biteman sought to remove the cap entirely, but a compromise led to a $500,000 cap.

The committee also explored conforming the second program — a loan to businesses with under 100 employers — into a grant structure. Biteman argued businesses are hanging on by their teeth and a grant could be a faster and more efficient way to distribute money.

Chairman Mike Greear pushed back that grants are risky.

"We need to make sure we are not just giving people money to give them money. We need to make sure that they're gonna be taking that money and putting that into their businesses so that it's circulating in our economy and opening up our main streets," he said. The amendment failed and remains as a loan program.

With additional amendments following public testimony, the Joint Minerals Committee will determine Monday how to proceed with its bill.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.

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