God rays in the sky near Wyoming's Canyon Ranch Lodge. (Gary Elsasser/FlickrCC)

Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey once said, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are at the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” No doubt those words were inspired not from his political life but from his faith as a devout Protestant. Which reminds us that in solving our state budget crisis we face not just a fiscal crossroads, but a moral one. 

For decades Wyoming milked coal royalties as if it were our right. It’s as if we forgot that if 60 million years ago those peat bogs had formed 100 miles to the east, all that revenue would have gone to South Dakota. And despite a 20 year advance notice that utilities were migrating to natural gas and renewables, our politicians prioritized their short-term political careers over Wyoming’s future by not addressing our unsustainable tax structure. 

In so doing, we became addicted to coal royalties and they got to keep their political jobs.

It did not have to be this way. Working in the energy sector in Texas, I witnessed what happens when oil prices drop from $120 to $35 per barrel. It was brutal. But Texas adopted a different mindset than ours, which can be summarized by the bumper sticker: “Lord, please grant me one more oil boom, I promise not to piss it away!” When prices improved, Texas leaders took their heads out of the peat bogs and invested in new industries, improved their infrastructure and created one of the finest education systems in the country. 

Despite swings in energy prices, Texas consistently ranks in the top five in the nation for GDP growth.

Instead of preparing for this eventuality, and grasping the opportunity at hand, our leadership “pissed it away.” Which is why those same politicians should not now ask our children, elderly and needy to bear the burden of a squandered coal boom just to avoid the political risk of saying aloud what we all know to be true: The free lunch is over. 

Wyoming needs to create a fair and equitable tax structure for those who can bear the cost. We’ve rejected taxes as if it were our birthright to get our services for free forever. But if the math means that the free lunch comes at the expense of our children, for example, we need to acknowledge the difference between rugged independence and the moral question of selfishness.

Gov. Mark Gordon has done his best given his constitutional requirements to balance the budget. But his plan requires cutting $2.75 million from the Wyoming Home Services program, which allows our seniors to stay in their homes instead of being placed in a long-term-care facility. 

When I ran for U.S. Senate in 2018, I had lunch with a group of seniors in Laramie. One woman told me a heartbreaking story of how she had to sell virtually everything she owned and move into a facility. She described for me the kitchen table that she and her late husband owned. It wasn’t fancy or expensive, she said, but it had reminded her of him. It was carted off by a college student in a yard sale. She cried when she told the story, and so did I.

In Wheatland not long ago, my wife, Wendy, and I had breakfast at one of our favorite cafes. Wendy strikes up conversations wherever we go, which is how I got to hear the story of a mother who, in order to qualify for assistance, drives four hours to Green River for her son’s autism treatment. 

Our governor proposes a massive $135 million reduction for the Wyoming Department of Health, which will directly impact families like hers who, to use Humphrey’s words, through no fault of their own live in the “shadows of life.” 

Preparing our children for adulthood is among the highest moral calling, yet programs that offer the next generation a strong future are being reduced or eliminated. The University of Wyoming and our community colleges will see their budgets slashed by nearly 15%. Under the governor’s plan, the Department of Family Services will eliminate both the Boy’s School in Worland and the Girl’s School in Sheridan. 

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No one wants to pay taxes, but if in refusing to pay for the services we receive we deny a Wyoming child the same education and preparation we received, are we not confusing a fiscal crisis with a moral crisis?

Gordon announced that “every cut will hurt.” But is that to fall disproportionately on our children, our disabled neighbors and our seniors just so we can get for free those few services that remain? 

This is the time for our governor to trade his political skill for fearless leadership. It is the time to set aside worries about re-election. Because this particular crossroad asks that we make a choice about our fundamental values — and for many, our faith. There is another bumper sticker that comes to mind: “What would Jesus do?”

CORRECTION: The original version of this story wrongly identified the year Hubert Humphrey was vice president. 

David Dodson is a resident of Wyoming and an entrepreneur who has helped create over 20,000 private sector jobs. He is on the faculty of the Stanford Graduate School of Business where he teaches courses...

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  1. Taxes? Tax what? People and businesses in Wyoming are getting pinched pretty hard and have ever shrinking discretionary incomes. Additional taxes will have to be means tested. Tax the billionaires tripping over each other in Jackson Hole;

  2. We can and will survive this round of budget cuts. It will be devastating. I hope it hurts enough that Wyoming citizens take notice. Interim elections are around the corner. By the time 2022 rolls around, any candidate who runs on a “no tax” campaign needs to be roundly defeated. We are long past the time, 20 years past, to ignore the difference between what we know to be true and what we want to be true.

  3. If the Republicans were as devout of the Christian faith as they claim to be and never pass up an oppurtunity to say as much , we would not be having this discussion…

  4. The statements about closing the Boys & Girls Schools is incorrect. The budget is on the State website and available to be read by anyone. Reductions are taking place, yes, but not full on closures.

  5. This is a heartbreaking piece. Having grown up in Wyoming in the 50’s, I am still influenced by its beauty and its challenges. It was a hard place to live, weather being such a dominant factor. A few years ago someone wrote a book, “Pushed Off the Mountaintop, Sold Down the River” about the economics of the state. I went to a book signing and talk by the author. That was heartbreaking too. Except for the limited resources of coal and oil, it is a hard place to make a living. With the “gift” of wind, it is a shame that no one has harnessed it, Wyoming could provide power for North America, perhaps, might be a bit of an exaggeration. Whole herds of cattle can be wiped out in a blizzard, leaving the rancher with no income. Buffalo can survive the harsh winters, they provide a tasty, safer form of protein, and yet only Ted Turner saw the benefits of raising them. It’s expensive, you need a mighty strong fence and I don’t think you can herd them to a summer pasture. There’s the simple fact that they are beautiful animals too.

    I hope for the sake of the residents that the leadership of Wyoming can and will come to their sense and recognize that they are in charge of a great and beautiful state. It is time to look around and find out what is going on elsewhere and start doing it there. It won’t require much but some thinking and yes, investment of money in things that can become very reliable for jobs and increasing income. I don’t know of the lack of taxes, I’ve been gone a long time, but it does seem like most of the United States survives through those resources. The lack of plastic recycling here is startling, dirty business, but it doesn’t have to be, look what it did for China. Now we are faced with what to do with all our plastic. Surely with the innovations this country has seen, someone here could come up with a solution to those problems. Some European countries are breaking plastic down and building roads with it. Might hold up better than the asphalt, which will not be replaceable and breaks up every year.

    Not my monkey, not my circus, but it was my home and it makes me sad to think that things are in this stagnant state there.

  6. Excellent except for one thing. The governor repeatedly warned the legislature that they had to do something about revenues or very painful cuts would have to be made. They refused to add any revenue, and now sit back while the governor takes the blame for the cuts. The worst part is that the new legislature will be even more anti-tax and callous to the needs of the people of Wyoming than those who are leaving office. They are going to drive the state off a cliff, and we have to take the blame as we begin falling into the ravine for voting so carelessly. If the legislature can’t lead, then we have to vote for better people instead of louder people. It’s kind of funny really. Here we are a state full of people living off the charity of fossil fuels and the federal government while proclaiming our fervent independence and individualism.

    1. I bet that this is the Linda Anderson that I knew from years past. You are so correct! In my years here, I have never seen such a hard turn to the right politically. Conservative here once meant that you did not wear politics on your sleeve, fall into the trap of political “cultists”, or denigrate those you disagreed with. We were once a Baxter Black group of common sense people.

      The gravy train of easy revenue is gone. Our so called leaders have sold the state to Wall Street. We are the new “low cost” haven to millionaires and billionaires looking for a cheap tax haven. Meanwhile the working stiff – gets “stiffed” with declining schools for their kids, the highest cost healthcare in the USA, unaffordable housing and what will be a non existent social safety net.

      However, there is hope. These so called “conservatives” will beat up other states to be the first in line for federal handouts once the pandemic passes. And the fiefdom of kingdom Wyoming lives on……………………

  7. David –

    Couldn’t have said it better myself (and you know I’ve tried ;>) Well done. For those of us who have spent time on the campaign trail in our state, and who actually listen, stories like those you and Wendy hear are all too common.

    I’ll just add that for all the talk of personal responsibility and accountability that gets thrown around our state, when it comes to the legislature, we keep sending the same folks back who’ve driven us into the ditch. It’s a head scratcher, that’s for sure.

  8. Well written thoughts Dave.

    Wyoming now has Senate President Dan Dockstader and Speaker of the House Eric Barlow to shepherd our home state back to fiscal soundness. I can not think of two finer, measured, bridge building men of principle, integrity, and compassion who could tackle this current crisis with long term consequences successfully.
    Together, I trust they will find a way forward that ensures Wyoming’s future as a continued leader in quality of life for her citizens.

    It seems to me that the challenges and answers are visible, apparent, and clear. However, after years in Wyoming government I realize that they are most often incredibly complex and intertwined.

    I look forward to returning in retirement to a Wyoming that is even better than President Dockstader and Speaker Barlow found before they took the reins.

  9. “Rugged inidividualism” versus “selfishness.” That is the heart of the matter. The first represents our clinging to a myth; the latter to facing the reality. Dead on.