CHEYENNE — Gov. Mark Gordon delivered his third-ever State of the State Address to the Wyoming Legislature on Tuesday, cutting trail for the body as it sets to work navigating the state through one of the worst fiscal crises of its history.
In the hour-long speech, Gordon urged lawmakers to set aside politics for the common good of the state. He outlined several legislative priorities, applauded his staff and the people of Wyoming for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic and railed against the early actions of President Joe Biden’s administration as it seeks a path away from the fossil fuels that have long powered Wyoming’s economy.
The speech was also notable for what it didn’t include: While he advocated for a simplification of the budget, Gordon’s address lacked an explicit endorsement of any revenue proposals under consideration in the Wyoming Legislature as it seeks to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s budget.
Fighting for fossil fuels
Gordon repeatedly railed against Biden administration policies that he said imperil Wyoming’s cornerstone industry — fossil fuels. Federal policies, he said, have “radically changed” and represent a “clear and present threat” to the state’s economy.
“In D.C. they claim to follow science, but they adopt policies that resemble science fiction,” he said.
Continued development of coal, oil and gas resources, Gordon asserted, would enable Wyoming to become not just carbon neutral, but a net-negative producer of carbon dioxide. “Fossil energy makes that possible,” he said.
He did not explain how that would work.
“This crazed pursuit of 100% ‘green’ energy ignores the urgency of finding better ways to capture, use and sequester carbon,” he said. “It fantasizes that crippling our own nation is somehow good for our world. Nothing could be more off the mark.”
Fossil fuels, he said, “must remain a substantial supply option” and renewables like wind and solar must begin to “increase their commitment” to Wyoming by growing jobs and improving their economic benefit to the state. Gordon reiterated his call for fossil fuels to become an integral part of the nation’s strategy to combat climate change.
He also touted his administration’s efforts to counterbalance Biden’s executive orders. For example, while the White House called for all federal agencies to weigh the climate impacts of agency actions, Gordon tasked each of his agencies with evaluating the impact that the Biden oil and gas orders would have on their operations.
He also encouraged the Legislature to pass additional legislation to help support that industry, though he did not endorse any particular measure despite several pro-coal bills — like Senate File 136 and House Bill 155 — on the table this year.
“Let me be clear. I will not waiver in my efforts to protect our industries, particularly, our coal industry,” he said. “The use of coal is under assault from all directions. We have stood firm in our support of it throughout, for good reason. Paradoxically, it is the very industry, which offers the best chance, and most efficient way, to remove CO2 from our atmosphere.”
Those pro-coal efforts are not merely responses to the new president. Last year, the governor’s office was revealed to have funded hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying activities in nine different states to encourage their coal-fired power plants to remain in operation.
Balancing the budget
In a roundtable last week with members of the Wyoming Business Alliance, Gordon told members that his office’s focus has not been on raising revenues, but on building transparency into the budget and simplifying the checkbook. When, and if, the time is necessary for Wyoming to talk about raising taxes, he said, it will be a statewide conversation.
“Any conversations about tax right now […] are premature,” he said at the time.
His State of the State Address just a few days later echoed that theme — even as lawmakers grapple with the pain of ratifying many of those cuts.
“Undeniably, we are entering more frugal times and we will have to continue to temper wants and emphasize needs,” he said. “It is now your turn to consider how best to meet the needs of our people without burdening the generations to come. That is the tradition of Wyoming people: to build for the future, and not just take for today.”
The onus for accomplishing that, he noted, falls on the Legislature. But as Gordon lamented cuts to critical social services, it remains to be seen whether the Legislature will take on the big-ticket items to raise the revenues needed to support them. The delegation from Teton County — by many measures the wealthiest county in the nation — has introduced a suite of legislation this session intended to raise tens of millions of dollars almost exclusively from the activities of the state’s wealthiest. Lawmakers have thus far shown little appetite for that idea.
Lawmakers have, however, so far smiled upon smaller revenue-generating proposals like small fee increases, a tobacco tax and a fuel tax. But other proposals — including the wide spread elimination of tax exemptions, or an income tax on high-income earners — appear to be non-starters.
On the other side of the coin, lawmakers are considering myriad reductions to critical services such as early childhood intervention and an elimination of in-home senior services. On Monday, the Senate Appropriations Committee advanced a one-page bill to open those in-home services for seniors up for cuts, which advocates like AARP Wyoming argued could actually increase the state’s long-term healthcare costs more than three times their current level by eliminating the options for elderly patients to receive preventative care in their homes.
“We understand the tough choices needing to be made,” Ramsey Scott, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Alzheimer’s Association, said at the time. “But we do see this program as being vital to every one of these seniors and their families.”
“The elephant in the room,” Gordon said, is Wyoming’s K-12 education budget, which is currently facing a budgetary shortfall of roughly a third of a billion dollars. And unlike most other government services, the Legislature is required to meet certain constitutional obligations with public instruction, making cuts more legally difficult to execute.
Right now, the Wyoming Legislature is considering a hybrid proposal to match that obligation. It would entail a mixture of spending from savings and a revisitation of the state’s funding model through a process called recalibration, a proposal initially anticipated to save the state roughly $100 million annually.
But even recalibration has run into roadblocks. On the House side, lawmakers are considering a vehicle to attach a sales tax increase to the recalibration bill to offset the impact on the state’s savings accounts. The Senate has already expressed some resistance to that idea. Meanwhile on Monday, members of the House Education Committee introduced amendments to their version of the recalibration bill, winnowing what had been a $100 million reduction into just a $22 million cut. Some — like Rep. Jerry Obermueller (R-Casper) — were resistant to the idea of introducing any cuts at all in the recalibration bill prior to a budget session.
“I’m just saying step back, and let recalibration be what it is,” he said.
Gordon acknowledged the financial realities facing the education system in his address. But he also endorsed broader efforts to reimagine how the state delivers that education. These included revising the governance structure of early childhood education.
“It is not clear that more money necessarily equals better education, or that less does either,” he said. “And money lies at the root of the Campbell County decisions [the landmark Wyoming Supreme Court rulings requiring all students in Wyoming to receive an equal education] that currently guide our state’s response to education. But here is the bottom line: We cannot simply wait until we are out of money before taking action. This is far more than a budget issue, and I want our stakeholders and our communities to be involved in establishing a plan and vision.”
Wyoming’s political climate
In addressing those problems, Gordon highlighted the need for the Legislature to remain focused on the state’s crucial issues — a clear priority as a less experienced, more conservative Legislature is set to deal with a full legislative workload in just a single month.
“I’m sure there will be temptations to get sidetracked with politically oriented legislation,” he told lawmakers. “But we have to keep our eye on the ball.”
Politics have been difficult to ignore in Cheyenne. Roughly two months before Gordon’s speech, a crowd of several hundred who opposed his public health orders stood outside his office in Cheyenne, chanting “one-term governor.”
In the Legislature, numerous bills to limit his office’s authority to issue public health orders have been filed. Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), a frequent critic of those orders, has filed legislation to make the gubernatorially appointed posts of State Health Officer and Attorney General elected positions. (The AG bill failed to make it out of committee, with just one member — Sen. Brian Boner (R-Douglas) — in-favor.)
Last week, a group of conservative activists filed a petition in Wyoming’s Fourth District Court challenging the constitutionality of Gordon’s public health orders.
But Gordon lauded Wyoming’s response to COVID-19 and offered plaudits to his appointees for their work in managing the heightened tensions brought about by the pandemic.
“I want to thank Dr. Harrist and her team for adhering to the scientific approach they have taken over this past year when it would have been much easier to follow politics,” said Gordon. “She embodied the belief that some things are simply not for sale. I want to acknowledge the principled insights of Attorney General Hill. She knew where to draw the line to protect our citizen’s rights that are enshrined in the Constitutions of the United States and Wyoming.”