Governor vows to vet state economy’s ties to tribes


The UNITY group spoke with the governor about their plans for a youth conference at St. Stephens School on Friday, June 8. Unity has organized travel, political activities and social events for young people on the reservation. (Courtesy Gary Collins — click to enlarge)
By Ron Feemster
June 6, 2013

At an informal meeting with the Eastern Shoshone Business Council and three Northern Arapaho leaders, Gov. Matthew Mead pledged to examine the alleged imbalance between the money that tribes on the Wind River Indian Reservation pay to the state in taxes and the value of services and infrastructure they receive in return.

“They think they’ve paid in more than they get back in terms of services,” the governor said after the private meeting in Fort Washakie. “And so what I’ve proposed for the next meeting is, I’ll come back and bring some of the revenue people, some of the economic analysis people, and just go over those numbers.”

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.

The governor meets regularly with the tribes. The meetings are open when they take place in Cheyenne but are closed to the press on the reservation, where state public meeting laws do not apply.

Topics yesterday afternoon ranged from health, education, water and infrastructure to gaming and the form of contracts between the states and the tribes, according to people who were in the room. But the big topic was the fairness of taxation. The tribes are convinced that they deserve a higher return on the revenues that reservation oil and gas generate.

“They’ve done two studies on that, and that’s what their numbers show,” Mead said. “I don’t have those numbers. We’ll do our own study and also make our people available to them so we can hash things over.”

The governor acknowledged the differences between the amount of severance tax that oil producers pay on the reservation and elsewhere in the state. The tribes have quoted disparities as wide as 22 percent on the reservation and 13 percent elsewhere. Mead sees the tribes’ issue, but he believes the taxation gap is narrower, 22 percent to 18 percent.

“Their concern is how do you compete with next door when you’re not looking at 22 percent. You’re looking at less than 22 percent,” Mead said. “The oil is not oilier here, if you know what I mean.

“In terms of what they’re paying in and what they’re paying out, that’s an issue we have to look at,” Mead said. “That may be true. That’s question one and question two is what if anything to do about it.”

Mead also pointed out that the imbalance between tribal payments and revenue, if it exists, is not the only one in the state.

“Sweetwater County, Campbell County and Sublette County — those three counties pay about 50 percent of the [statewide] bill in assessed valuation,” Mead said. All of those counties pay more to the state than they receive in return.

Tom Forslund, director of the department of health, also attended the meeting to answer questions about Medicaid reimbursement. Forslund testified in the morning at the Labor Health and Social Services Interim Committee meeting in Casper. The governor picked him up in a state plane at the Casper airport. The two of them flew to Lander for the meeting with the tribes.

During a break in the discussions, the governor met a group of students from UNITY, a youth group on the reservation. “He shook hands and spoke individually with every one of them,” said Gary Collins, the Northern Arapaho liaison with the governor’s office.

“It’s a very productive conversation,” the governor said about the ongoing series of meetings. “It’s not just ‘Hey, we want the money.’ We’re talking about infrastructure, health and economic development. They point out often that [the reservation] is a smaller version of the state. The issues they’re dealing with are the same issues we’re dealing with: education, health, what’s in your coffers. All of that.”

Both sides describe the meetings as cordial, even friendly. But the tribes betray some reservations about what can be achieved in the long run.

“Governor Mead hears us,” said Sarah Robinson, the Eastern Shoshone liaison with the governor’s office. “I think he really hears what we have to say. The question is what happens when he hands it off to the other agencies.”

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at ron@wyofile.com.

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