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Legislators see tough session ahead


February 7, 2018

Local members of the Wyoming House of Representatives are expecting a difficult legislative session.

The budget session, which starts Monday, is expected to bring about debates regarding the state’s budget and education spending.

John Freeman, D-Green River, said the state has to decide how it will utilize its “rainy day” fund, the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account. At current spending projections, Freeman said the LSRA should last eight years, but could get spent down sooner should more people look at it as a stopgap solution to funding problems. However, he believes the state needs to find a way of dealing with the state’s “one stool” economy, propped up only by mineral development. That sole dependency is the reason for Wyoming’s boom-and-bust economy and something that will need to be addressed if Wyoming wants to break that cycle. Freeman said the governor’s ENDOW initiative is a heartfelt attempt at diversifying the economy, but worries the initiative might get underfunded. Economic development, Freeman said, is something that doesn’t happen overnight.

“If you’re going into economic development, you have to be prepared,” Freeman said. “You’re in it for the long run.”

He said longterm investments in communities like Sheridan have started paying off, as Sheridan was recently named the location for the new Weatherby manufacturing and corporate headquarters.

With education, Freeman said the legislature will have to find ways to fund schools while dealing with the loss of coal lease bonuses, which resulted in the loss of $200 million to education funding. He said an additional problem legislators will have to contend with is the fact that a rainy-day fund set up for education, amounting to $571 million, will be completed drained in the next two years.

“It appears to me we’re satisfied with robbing the rainy-day fund as a stopgap measure,” he said.

With school maintenance alone costing approximately $100 million each year, legislators will have to determine how the state can fund those costs.

These problems also into an issue Freeman doesn’t believe is receiving enough attention: how the electrical grid will look in five or 10 years.

“An important thing for people to realize is the power grid is going to change,” he said.

Freeman said California continues investing in renewable energy sources, while he’s been told companies in Texas are pushing for natural gas plants, using the byproduct of the state’s oil industry for lost-cost power generation. Both states, once important customers for Wyoming coal, could continue to impact the Cowboy State’s economy as coal becomes less important to power generation impacting the economy further. It isn’t just areas in the United States moving away from coal.

“When I went to China to see coal-fired power plants, I saw hundreds of wind turbines and solar panels,” he said.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom for Freeman. He said this has been the most work-intensive interim period he’s been involved in since becoming a legislator eight years ago, as legislators work to address the problems Wyoming faces. Freeman said he’s looking forward to the session.

Stan Blake, D-Green River, identifies a key problem the legislature has grappled with for the past several years. To him, the biggest problem legislators will face in Cheyenne is the desire to not increase taxes, but keep funding for services.

“I think there’s going to be a reckoning this year,” Blake said. “I don’t know how we’re going to get out of it.”

Blake said he thinks more funding cuts will be proposed, but said the legislature doesn’t have an appetite to increase the state’s revenues, a situation he thinks could impact state services. Cuts have been made to programs like the Low Income Energy Assistance program through the Wyoming Department of Family Services. However, the problem he sees at the root of the issue is the state is still heavily dependent on minerals to pay its bills.

“We need to have revenue from other sources aside from minerals,” he said.

Blake said he agrees with comments made by the Vice President of the Wyoming Senate, Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette. Von Flatern, speaking on the Wyoming PBS “Capitol Outlook” program, said the state needs to get away from the boom-and-bust economic cycle. He said the last 15 years were the longest boom the state has ever seen, saying 70 percent of the revenue the state collected during that period came from minerals. However, he believes low taxes won’t attract new businesses to the state.

“Low taxes work well for the billionaires that move to Jackson and build a home for $20 or $30 million dollars because they’re getting out of a high-tax state like California,” he told Wyoming PBS. “But, for a corporation to come here and say ‘well yeah, you’re depending on your mineral industry, but the mineral industry is going downward a little bit and so, at one point, you’re going to slap a tax on me.’”

He hopes some funding will return to the Wyoming Department of Health, the Meals on Wheels program, and other senior services. He’s also hopeful his license plate bill, which would create a special plate residents could buy that would fund wildlife highway crossings, passes as well. There is one thing he does not want to see happen however.

“I’m praying we don’t cut education any more than we absolutely have to,” he said.


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