Wyoming will receive a combined $3.3 billion from two federal investment programs that the state’s Republican congressional delegation voted against.
Back home, the GOP governor gripes about the Democratic administration and Congress that threw Wyoming the much-needed lifeline (all while clinging desperately to it).
More billions will flow into Wyoming from the Build Back Better bill that should soon pass whenever Democrats work out their differences. Republicans hate that one, too.
Wait a minute — I thought they liked prosperity. I guess it depends on who gets to claim the credit.
I hardly expect Gov. Mark Gordon to sing the praises of the federal government or do cartwheels in the Capitol because Joe Biden is president. But he could have used his recent budget message to the Legislature to at least acknowledge that $1.1 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act made his job balancing the books a lot easier.
Twice that amount will be spent in Wyoming from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was working its way through Congress as Gordon prepared his budget. He knew it was coming and must recognize its potential to fix many of the state’s long-standing infrastructure needs, including highways, bridges and dams.
Gordon even joined a bipartisan group of governors that asked Congress to include infrastructure for carbon capture and sequestration in the bill. Their request was granted.
But predictably, Gordon focused on what Republican governors in Wyoming always do when a Democrat is in the White House. He blamed the administration for the state’s fiscal problems in recent years and predicted a lot of trouble ahead.
“Wyoming’s core industries and largest revenue generators continue to be energy and minerals — all of which remain under attack by an administration in Washington bent on eliminating fossil fuels from our nation’s energy portfolio,” Gordon wrote.
Sound familiar? It should. Back when President Barack Obama took office in 2008, Wyoming officials immediately sounded the alarm about the so-called “war on coal.” Stricter environmental regulations would supposedly ruin the Equality State’s economy, and the only thing that could save us was a Republican administration to roll them back.
But President Donald Trump couldn’t save coal, which is dying not from an imaginary conspiracy but because the market prefers cheaper natural gas and renewable energy like wind and solar. Now Biden is president, and the GOP in coal country is still singing the same sad song: Blame federal laws passed by Democrats.
It’s a losing argument. Last month, the Consensus Revenue Estimating Group said its forecast for Wyoming’s revenue had increased by more than $820 million compared to the January report. The improvement was pegged to higher energy prices and sales and use tax collections.
Gordon couldn’t take this good news on its face. “I believe we must be mindful about how we deploy the serendipitous, additional funds for the coming biennium … Today’s good fortune is a reprieve, not a solution to our revenue stability,” he wrote.
Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne), co-chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee, is on the same page as the governor.
“Four years from now we’re going to be essentially in the same boat as we were a year ago,” Nicholas said when the CREG report was released. “So, because of the volatility of our revenue, the concept is that if we don’t save for another rainy day, we’re gonna fall off another fiscal cliff five years from now, if we don’t use this money wisely.”
What could possibly happen in the next four years? Oh wait, there’s another presidential election! The strategy of the state’s executive and legislative leaders is clear. Recognizing the inevitable fate of a fossil-fuels-dependent economy, and lacking the intestinal fortitude and political spine to diversify, Wyoming politicians are working hard to pin the blame now on Biden and congressional Democrats.
Gordon plans to shovel $454 million into the state’s “rainy day fund” in case it’s needed to avert any future crisis. What about restoring the budget cuts that hit state agencies and institutions so hard? How about finally expanding Medicaid?
And there’s something else that needs to be part of the political discussion — a shred of honesty about how the infusion of federal funds will positively affect Wyoming’s economy.
When Trump was president, Wyoming’s congressional delegation, which then included Rep. Liz Cheney, Sen. John Barrasso and the late Sen. Mike Enzi, supported the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Wyoming’s Legislature held a special session to determine how the state’s $1.2 billion CARES Act share would be spent, and gave much of the authority to Gordon.
Like all Republicans, Wyoming’s congressional delegation (with Sen. Cynthia Lummis succeeding Enzi) voted against ARPA, Biden’s subsequent $2.1 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. Gordon convened a “Strike Team” to recommend how Wyoming will spend the $1.1 billion ARPA earmarked for the state, and last week he said the members advanced a total of $3 billion worth of state needs.
There are some excellent proposals, including investments in housing, telehealth, suicide prevention and emergency medical services. My criticism stems from the way Gordon treated ARPA funding as almost an afterthought. The act received only passing mention at the end of his budget message, despite being integral to Wyoming’s future.
The towering federal investment in Wyoming’s prosperity will certainly influence budget talks when lawmakers convene in February. Why downplay its potential impact on a $2.2 billion biennial budget that Gordon took great pains to label as “frugal?” Does he need to prove his conservative bona fides that desperately?
I think the answer is simple. It’s because ARPA and the recently passed infrastructure bill — which will keep the state from having to make more draconian cuts or raise taxes to provide essential services — prove that Wyoming needs the federal government to operate.
It’s a fundamental principle that separates the state’s Republican and Democratic parties. The latter recognizes that federal funding is simply the dispersal of revenues collected from taxes and other sources to provide for the common good; the former acts like it’s dirty money.
For all their grandstanding, however, no GOP politician is interested in standing on principle and closing the door to federal money. Federal funding accounted for nearly 28% of Wyoming’s total state revenue before the pandemic and the bailout bills that followed. That made us the 11th most federally dependent state in the union — anti-federal sentiment notwithstanding. Without federal funds, the state would need to enact both individual and corporate income taxes simply to survive.
Barrasso, Lummis and Cheney all voted against the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, despite the fact it will create jobs and help diversify the economy. It will provide $1.8 billion to improve highways, $225 million for bridge replacement and repairs, $100 million to improve broadband coverage, $72 million for airport infrastructure and $14 million to fight wildfires.
Wyoming will receive about $4,400 per capita in the infrastructure package, second only to Alaska.
The congressional delegation is a lost cause; it will vote against anything Democrats propose. But the governor is both closer to the electorate and tasked with actually accomplishing something — namely running the state and keeping the lights on. That kind of responsibility has been known to inspire pragmatism in even the most jaded of ideologues. Surely he recognizes that his budget recommendations to the Legislature can make a big difference in people’s lives.
Gordon owes the public more than his weak attempt to justify a scaled-back budget with the phony argument that the feds will derail the state’s economy by ruining the fossil fuels industry.
If I was governor with more than $2 billion in COVID-19 relief funds, job-creating infrastructure improvements on the way and additional federal largesse on the horizon, I’d be looking for someone to thank — even if our benefactor looks suspiciously like Uncle Sam.