CHEYENNE — Addressing a new, less experienced, more divided and increasingly conservative Legislature, Gov. Mark Gordon on Wednesday painted Wyoming as the paragon of citizen-led small government and a bastion of personal liberty.
“Wyoming is poised to become a leader on so many fronts,” Gordon told lawmakers gathered in the Wyoming Capitol for his annual state of the state address.
Gordon, a popular moderate governor who cruised to reelection, named numerous realms where he sees Wyoming leading: “advanced carbon innovation,” “energy security,” “value-added agriculture” and “fiscal prudence.”
“Our unwavering belief that government works best for the people when it is closest to the people … makes Wyoming an ideal model for other states,” he said.
The remarks came at the dawn of the 67th Wyoming Legislature’s general session, where the GOP-dominated Wyoming House and Senate face hard choices about saving versus spending, a worsening water crisis, and scaled back social service programs.
Gordon also noted opportunities for improvement in the state’s governance. He called for all residents to have access to affordable, quality healthcare, including treatment for mental health disorders. Wyoming’s suicide rate consistently doubles the U.S. average, according to the Wyoming Department of Health.
In the coming weeks lawmakers will consider House Bill 80 – Medical treatment opportunity act-Medicaid reform to expand Wyoming residents’ access to Medicaid, and House Bill 65 – 988 suicide prevention, which creates an advisory board to administer and a trust account to fund Wyoming’s new 24/7 help line.
Gordon, known for optimism during the annual address, used the 45-minute speech to stake a position on several other bills. He urged passage of House Bill 61 – Source material associated with mining-agreement, that would authorize him to work with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to gain Wyoming permitting authority over rare earth mining operations.
The newly second-term governor also encouraged lawmakers to pass House Bill 83 – Tribal agreements to hunt and fish. The potential landmark legislation allows the governor to authorize off-reservation tribal hunting activities on ancestral lands. The measure comes on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Herrera v. Wyoming decision, in which the high court sided with a Crow tribal member who claimed that 1868 treaty language entitled him to hunt elk in the Bighorn National Forest outside of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s seasons.
“Finding agreement on this issue will support shared hunting values better than any court decision ever will,” Gordon said.
Another bill addressing tribal concerns, House Bill 18 – Missing person alert systems, received a shout-out during the governor’s remarks. It would require law enforcement agencies to deploy a new tool, called the Ashanti alert system, when at-risk adults go missing.
Gordon championed Wyoming’s “fiscal prudence” and reliance on a state government that’s the “leanest it has been in a decade.” Wyoming, he said, is “getting stronger” by diversifying its economy to better withstand the busts of legacy mining, oil and gas industries that are in prolonged decline. A decade ago those industries accounted for a third of Wyoming’s GDP. Now they account for only 15% of the economy, according to the governor’s 2023-2024 supplemental budget proposal.
Despite those declines, lawmakers this session will sort out what to do with a $913 million surplus. Gordon proposed saving roughly half, including putting $412 million into the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund. His budget suggestion also leaves $2 billion in the rainy day fund. The largest spending items in his proposal are focused on helping Wyoming’s government cover the costs of high inflation.
The Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee started working on the supplemental budget bill the morning of Gordon’s speech. With several additions and subtractions offsetting each other, the committee’s recommendation is just $13 million under what the governor proposed. The committee’s biggest divergence from Gordon’s recommendation is $9 million more for the Department of Health and $25.4 million less in employee compensation. State officials have argued increased wages are necessary to counteract staffing shortages that have swept across the Wyoming government.
Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Kate Fox spoke to the need for employee pay raises in the judicial branch following Gordon’s remarks. Although staff got a raise a year ago, she said, “inflation has now eroded all progress in that race.”
With his speech complete, Gordon passes the baton to the Legislature, which has eight weeks to determine if and how to fund state government and otherwise change the state’s policies and laws through hundreds of bills. The body’s general session, which began Tuesday, is scheduled to run through March 3.