The Wyoming Legislature has been meeting for a couple of weeks now and it seems very similar to past sessions. There's not going to be tax increases, there's a lot of talk about budget cutting, but hardly any real cuts are underway. This despite the fact that revenue projections remain dire.
Senator Dan Dockstader is a strong fiscal conservative from western Wyoming and late last year he predicted massive budget cuts to areas like education along with most of state government. As Majority Floor leader, he has a lot of say over what bills and issues the Senate will debate. He is also a champion for mineral production and has been focused on doing everything it takes to protect the coal industry, particularly keeping coal-fired power plants open. Dockstader said he and other republican leaders want energy to be a key focus this session.
"I don't want to see us leave that discussion. Renewables are very much a part of what we're working on, but I think it's important to not give up on that which makes us a state, that's the extraction taxes, the minerals there." Dockstader added that the reason is simple. "That has supported the state for so many years and I'm not ready to leave that behind just yet."
Neither is his counterpart down the hall, House Majority Leader Eric Barlow of Gillette.
"I mean I'm not naïve about the challenges that are before us, but we don't just surrender. We say what can we do that's prudent to at least maintain…one the jobs and with the jobs of course that revenue is available," said Barlow.
This also entails spending a lot of money of various types of efforts to capture CO2 and make it marketable.
House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly was hopeful that the session would bring about some interesting concepts, but she's been a little frustrated that the state is not trying new things and sticking with things like coal.
"Why are we spending money chasing something that we have heard over and over again from high level economists that this is not what the appetite is for electricity," said Connolly
"I'm not sure it's a waste of time," said Rep. Albert Sommers.
Sommers is a member of the Appropriations Committee from Pinedale. That committee determines what the spending priorities are for the state. He said figuring out a way to capture carbon is far from a waste of time.
"You know even by the climate change projections at some time we may need to be able to capture carbon out of the atmosphere, right? On earth to get done what we want. So, some of the things we work on at the university and some things in other processes are getting to that," said Sommers.
The reason they care so much is because they are looking for new ways for Wyoming to be a leader in energy. Wyoming is facing a major shortfall in future revenue and in fact they would be having problems now if they didn't have a billion and a half in a reserve account that keeps refilling. Going into the session many conservatives wanted spending cuts and one target was education. There are attempts at cutting back some spending in education, but there doesn't seem to be a huge appetite for that in the House. Part of the reason is that Speaker of the House Steve Harshman is a teacher.
Sundance Representative Tyler Lindholm says education spending needs to be looked at to a point. For instance, he doesn't want to do anything to hurt teachers and he suspects he's not alone.
"I think that's statewide. I haven't had anybody come to me and say Tyler, these teachers are paid too much. That doesn't happen," said Lindholm. "What I do think we need to look at is the State Department of Education and the State Board of education, look at their role and we need to look at the basket of goods. We don't want to cut teachers and we don't cut our schools, but we do got to find efficiencies."
They also need to find money. Representative Sommers said the forecast looks bad.
"Our CREG estimating group that looks at our long-term projections, they're saying it's out there that we got a cliff. That Armageddon could hit sometime after 2024," he said.
Which is why Representative Connolly thinks they need to completely rework the state tax structure, so they have a revenue base in the future.
"We honestly need to think about taxation schemes that are different than what we have right now. I want a vibrant future and I'm not seeing it right now," she said.
She said too many discussions have been on holding the line and not taxing. But what's interesting is that despite the projections there is a little optimism in the air. Republican leaders and the governor think a plan to purchase a million acres of land in southern Wyoming will lead to a pay day. Senator Dockstader is also excited about some proposals to enhance state investments.
"I think we give that a little more time and use those investments to structure the budget in the future. We have the right many in the office with governor Gordon who understands investments to line us out for a few years," said Dockstader.
Dockstader added that thoughtful reductions will continue to be necessary, but he admits he's more optimistic than he was four months ago.
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