GILLETTE — The mayor of the coal capital of Wyoming offered pointed criticism of the Legislature earlier this month, saying lawmakers need to focus on finding solutions for cities and towns trying to diversify and grow their economies.
“I guess I’m pretty frustrated with our Legislature,” two-term Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King told WyoFile on June 5. The comments stemmed from her exasperation over lawmakers’ failure to pass a proposed lodging tax she said would have helped Wyoming cities and towns.
“I don’t see what they’ve done — I mean they should be doing what each community is trying to do collectively,” she said. They should ask “what can help us” evolve our economies.
Instead, she’s seen lawmakers focus on political spats of little value to Gillette, she said. “I know with our own [Campbell County] legislators the last time I heard what they’re going to do is they were worried about Democrats changing to Republicans on voting day and just ridiculous stuff,” she said. “How is that going to help us? Who cares? Shut up and let’s get something done.
“Talk about what you can do for us,” she said.
In Gillette, Carter-King said city and county leaders are striving to take advantage of a tax revenue reprieve from increased oil activity to come up with new ideas as the coal industry, the region’s economic mainstay, falters. Community leaders are focused on new ideas for coal outside electricity and on turning Campbell County into a home for energy and carbon capture innovation by investing in career and technical education in their community college, she said.
Campbell County has for years played an outsized role in Wyoming’s revenue picture. It is home to the Powder River Basin coal mines that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in state severance and ad valorem taxes, as well as federal mineral royalties that come back to Wyoming. Carter-King argues that now the Legislature needs to back local efforts to diversify its local economy and find ways to keep generating revenues out of fossil fuels.
“I would hope the state realizes that how Gillette and Campbell County go they’re going to go,” she said.
Carter-King was particularly frustrated by lawmakers failure to pass the lodging tax, which she said could have helped tourism, the state’s second-biggest industry behind the energy business. The tax was slated to provide money for state-run advertising campaigns to draw visitors to Wyoming.
“That would help the entire state,” she said. “Why aren’t we doing stuff to help ourselves rather than… what are we doing?
“I still don’t understand it and no one has told me a reason why it died or what the push-back was other than ‘oh we don’t want more taxes,’” she said.
The lodging tax proposal entered the 2019 legislative session with strong support.
Opposition to the tax arose late in the session, as small hoteliers and restaurateurs, including some lawmakers, argued the proposal would benefit large hospitality businesses on the backs of smaller ones. Other opponents argued that although pitched as a tax on out-of-state tourists, it would still hit local travelers, particularly the parents of high school students competing in athletics.
Senators voted 19-7 to kill the bill on its third reading in that chamber, the final vote before it would have passed on to the governor.
“That one just shocked me,” Carter-King said.
Though Gillette is not one of the state’s tourist centers, it is along a major interstate and close to Devil’s Tower National Monument and the scenic Black Hills of South Dakota. It also has a budding convention center, said city communications manager Geno Palazzari, and is working on developing sports tourism.
“It’s certainly not something we’re hanging our hat on but it’s something to take advantage of,” Palazzari said.
After killing proposals like the lodging tax, Carter-King does not see a clear direction coming out of Cheyenne to guide the state at large, she said.
“I guess I’d like to see more out of our Legislature… Just what are we going to do? What’s the plan? And not fighting about who can vote when. We should be encouraging everybody to vote,” she said.
“I was just exasperated with our efforts,” Carter-King said.
Not all bad…
But lawmakers weren’t all bad, Carter-King said. She cited the Gillette Community College’s newfound ability to offer four-year degrees, which could help it grow. That measure overcame opposition from the University of Wyoming this last legislative session to open up the state’s community college system to four-year degrees.
Lawmakers advanced other workforce development measures Carter-King didn’t reference. In an editorial celebrating the session’s conclusion, legislative leaders touted a program to provide job training to adults and opening the state’s chief university scholarship to students pursuing career and technical education.
The second-term Gillette mayor also commended the Legislature for its continued work to enhance Wyoming’s air travel opportunities. This year, lawmakers added $15 million in funding to an air service enhancement program created in 2018.
That’s big for Gillette, Carter-King said. She cited L&H Industries, a multinational service company operating in the oil, gas, mining and railroad services sectors that remains headquartered in Gillette.
“I was told that if we can’t keep reliable air service here they can’t function out of [Gillette],” she said. Employees waiting for flights in Denver or other layover cities is a loss for the company, she said. It’s right for the state government to intervene and subsidize air travel in the name of economic development, she said.
“Our poor small state of 500,000 people needs help because I can see air companies going ‘What? We can we do that [level of business] out of a Denver suburb.’”
The air-subsidy program raised the ire of the Wyoming Republican Party, who also pushed the legislative measures to restrict primary election voting abhorred by Carter-King. Last year, the State Central Committee of the Wyoming Republican Party voted to punish lawmakers who supported the air subsidies program by withholding campaign funding from them, previous WyoFile reporting revealed.
Gillette city hall knows budget cuts
Interviewed shortly after the bankruptcy announcement of Powder River Basin coal company Cloud Peak Energy, Carter-King noted her administration, and town, is no stranger to the woes of a declining coal industry.
Three years ago in March, Peabody Energy, Alpha Natural Resources and Alpha Coal laid off 465 miners in a single day. The effects of that cut rippled through the local economy, much of which depends directly or indirectly on miners’ paychecks. They also hit city budgets.
The city cut $60 million from its budget, all told. “They were tough times,” Carter-King said. Gillette cut around 45 positions through attrition and layoffs.
Today, an oil boom has propped sales taxes back up and the city is fiscally stronger than it has been in several years. But with increasingly uncertain times ahead for the coal industry, the window for the city to evolve its economy and tax base before the next blow falls could be short, she said.
“The hardest thing about it was [revenue] would drop 20 to 30 percent and you didn’t know if that was the bottom,” she said. “We did not know where the bottom was.”