Wyoming’s state government is hurtling toward a financial crossroads: Either the state will continue fighting “woke capitalism,” or it will embrace legitimate conservative principles and the free market’s efforts to combat climate change, promote justice and treat workers with dignity.
The idea that a government should spend billions trying to alter market-driven corporate and investor behavior flies in the face of conservative economic fundamentals and would be a political nonstarter for any self-respecting Republican even a decade ago.
Yet here we are in 2023 and apparently the only thing that matters now to Wyoming’s “freedom” loving “true Republicans” is winning the culture wars. That means, among other failings, resisting any progress toward a free market that values clean renewable energy, pays workers livable wages and recognizes diversity as an asset, not a liability — the ideological and financial cost of their opposition be damned.
The object of their ire is the national embrace of environmental, social and governance responsibility, better known as the ESG movement. ESG is a paradigm in which investors and companies account for environmental, social and governance factors as they evaluate business risks and opportunities.
ESG policies have become nearly ubiquitous in leading American corporations and investment firms. Many even use ESG ratings and policies as primary criteria as they make investment and corporate policy decisions. They do so because their customers have made it clear that’s what they want and because they recognize the health of our environment and nature of our society will ultimately drive the success of our economy.
Factoring in such variables is just good business. In other words, it’s the free market recognizing a need and stepping up to solve it — just like conservatives have long said the market is best equipped to do.
Turns out the wisdom of the market is all well and good until it sounds too much like a Democrat or comes for a state lawmaker’s sacred ox.
Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) sponsored two anti-ESG measures during the recent general session. Both failed, but the Management Council chose anti-ESG legislation as an interim topic for the Joint Appropriations Committee. That means lawmakers will soon be back at trying to figure out how to use the state’s financial might to fight the global market.
How far will the state go to keep so-called woke capitalism out of its investments? Gov. Mark Gordon decided Wyoming would join Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 18-state coalition against ESG.
Biteman said his Senate File 159-Stop ESG-eliminate economic boycott act would have used the state’s “massive purchasing power” to fight economic warfare against fossil fuels and the “whole ESG gamut, whether it’s climate-related, social justice or governance.”
The state senator’s other bill, Senate File 172-Stop ESG-state funds fiduciary duty act, would have directed the state to not invest with entities that take part in “financial discrimination.” It had strict requirements for hiring and retention of investment managers or fiduciaries.
Both bills were approved by the Senate but died in the House Appropriations Committee, which canned the original proposals in favor of two substitute bills never seen by Biteman. The panel then unanimously recommended against passing the bills, virtually dooming them.
Level-headed adults who actually conduct business (as opposed to pontificating about it) pointed out several problems with Biteman’s original bills. Sam Masoudi, the Wyoming retirement system’s chief investment officer, told the committee the measures defined ESG so broadly and subjectively, that if a company states it supports diversity in the workplace (almost every company does), it could be banished to the “do not invest list.” So could an existing large coal company in Wyoming that features a page on its website about its climate focus and explains how it is going to reduce emissions (just about all of them).
In fact, Masoudi and others said every Fortune 500 company would have something in its portfolio that might restrict the state from investing.
State Chief Investment Office Patrick Fleming said Wyoming would lose opportunities with large investment managers and risk having to divest millions of dollars. The state and municipalities could face higher borrowing rates and the loss of contracts, he said.
That’s a pretty hefty price to pay for “owning the libs.”
Biteman clearly wasn’t happy that the Management Council didn’t assign the interim ESG topic to the Select Committee on Capital Financing & Investments, which likely would have been much friendlier toward his take on the issue. The House members of Joint Appropriations already killed Biteman’s bills once. There’s no reason to believe they’ll find his ideas more attractive in the interim.
But some officials remain dedicated to the cause. State Treasurer Curt Meier (another pontificator who’s proven himself incompetent) told the Management Council that he’s drafting an anti-ESG statement for his office similar to one DeSantis recently implemented in Florida, which says the state’s investment managers are not to further social, political or ideological interests. If they do, Meier added, “they’re essentially violating their contract.”
Wyoming officials who want to keep ESG ratings out of government investments simply repeat DeSantis’ claims that removing political “activism” from the system guarantees states will make the maximum possible on equities and bonds.
But it’s demonstrably not true. Texas, which banned municipalities from doing business with banks that have ESG policies against fossil fuels and firearms, saw interest payments balloon from $303 million to $532 million.
Indiana’s pension system estimated its anti-ESG policies will cost pensioners $6.7 billion over the next decade. Kansas expects its pension system to lose about $3.6 billion thanks to the ESG ban.
On NPR’s “Planet Money” last December, host Mary Childs provided an excellent example about how companies learn that progressive actions help them both improve the planet and save money.
“The fewer employees are hurt in work-related accidents, the fewer lawsuits,” Childs said. “The less you dump toxins in the river, the fewer fines from the EPA.
“Next, companies start finding ways to be more efficient,” she added. “They improve their cost structure by saving water or energy or materials. They improve productivity. And then companies start coming up with new products and services which help them expand.”
Wyoming officials have plenty of opportunities to invest state funds in equities for a broad range of fossil fuel companies, firearms manufacturing, the timber industry and other businesses they believe help Wyoming’s economy, regardless of their environmental, social and governance impacts.
But ESG proponents rightfully contend companies that are responsible in any or all three areas shouldn’t be shut out of state investments. They are responsible, good corporate citizens who are working to make their businesses sustainable and ethical. They can also financially outperform many non-ESG companies.
If Wyoming truly believes the health and well-being of future generations is what matters most, the more people working to improve the world on the road to state prosperity — whether you call them woke or not — the better.