Wyoming GOP debates for Governor and Treasurer analyzed

August 12, 2014
By Gregory Nickerson

In yesterday’s televised debate for the GOP primary for governor, viewers saw a mixture of the anti-federal impulses within the state’s Republican party, which range from lawsuits against the EPA to full-fledged revivals of the Sagebrush Rebellion. The candidate that GOP voters choose in next week’s primary will make a statement on what faction in the state GOP has the most political muscle to get out the primary vote, and how much ground the more activist anti-federal Republicans have gained since 2012.

Gov. Matt Mead crafted his image as an incumbent who is running on his record of conservative social values, defending coal, and opposing the EPA and Medicaid expansion, while moderating views somewhat on education and supporting economic development of all stripes.

Mead used the state’s healthy economic picture as the biggest feather in his cap, a move that some observers have said makes him the safe favorite to win, since most voters are more interested in their personal economic situation than in political issues that they don’t see as effecting them on a daily basis.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill clearly positioned herself as running against Mead, focusing on a suite of issues that she believes will give the most traction against the incumbent. These include his support of Senate File 104, the bill that transferred the duties of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to an appointed director, which the Wyoming Supreme Court struck down this past January. She also criticized Mead’s support of the Common Core education standards and economic development grants to attract out-of-state businesses to Wyoming, and his approval of legislation to raise the gas tax. Many Republicans who are challenging incumbents this year have focused on the same issues.

Hill also tried to gain the upper hand by framing Mead as an ineffective champion of Wyoming’s coal industry, which has suffered due to a plentiful supply of natural gas and federal regulations that favor gas for electricity generation. In his defense, Mead said he is endorsed by the Wyoming Mining Association, and has launched 13 lawsuits against the EPA. Hill said litigation is not an effective tool for defending coal because it takes years to complete, and that Wyoming needs quick answers which could be provided by “leadership.” With federal policy, economics, and public opinion turning against coal, defending Wyoming’s mining industry will be an uphill battle for any leader.

Haynes stuck with his constitutional arguments in favor of taking over federal lands, which are arguably the most-discussed aspect of his platform. While this approach may appeal to some voters, others including Mead and House Speaker Tom Lubnau (R-Gillette), see it as a poorly-conceived dream that violates Wyoming’s Constitution.

Meanwhile, Haynes points to Wyoming Statute Title 36 Chapter 12, a piece of legislation passed in 1983 that sets up a process for Wyoming take control of federal lands and their management, while charging anyone who challenges the takeover with a felony. This sounds a lot like the gun bill we saw in the 2013 legislation, which would have made it a felony to enforce new federal gun laws in Wyoming. The gun bill died, yet the 1983 statute still lies dormant and unenforced after 31 years, which indicates the governor or legislature could pursue such a course of action and force the legal question.

One notable topic of debate was Haynes’ and Hill’s opposition to providing public funds to private companies for economic development purposes. The libertarian value of letting free enterprise decide winners and losers is a long-standing thread in Wyoming politics, which has coexisted with an even stronger impulse on the part of legislators to offer government largesse to what sometimes turn out to be ill-fated commercial and industrial projects.

During this past legislative session lawmakers discussed reforming the state’s economic development policies to seek more definite returns on investment. If this primary debate is any indication, the topic of economic development policies and loans to businesses will be discussed even more in the near future.

While many Wyoming Republicans are  stridently anti-federal, it’s not every day you hear the topic of forming a state militia to oppose the federal government. Historically, such ideas are more common among radicals in Montana and northern Idaho. But in responding to a question about how far individuals should be able to go in opposing the federal government, even when their interpretations of the constitution disagree with the courts, Hill seemed to think forming a state militia may be a topic worthy of careful consideration.

“I would go to the constitution in those instances, and I would follow those carefully prescribed words regarding whether or not we should have a militia in this state,” Hill said. “There are states that are organizing (militias) right now. … We have to carefully weigh and measure these decisions, and then make certain we are always constitutionally-minded when we determine our best actions,” she said.

Mead took that opening to point out that Wyoming’s constitution says the state is an inseparable part of the United States, and that armed standoff in the style of Cliven Bundy is something he strongly disagrees with. He said the courts and elections provide Americans with the proper peaceful recourse for redirecting their government.

A call to arms against the federal government harkens back to the Whiskey Rebellion and the Civil War, and at least some Wyoming politicians think establishing armed forces for the state is a ridiculous idea, as evidenced by Rep. Kermit Brown’s tongue-in-cheek amendment from the 2012 session calling for Wyoming to acquire an aircraft carrier. It will be interesting to see if talk of militias gains any further traction.

State treasurer debate

In the GOP debate for state treasurer, incumbent Mark Gordon’s experience and understanding of state investment policy set him apart from challenger Ron Redo, a retired state government employee.

Redo offered several changes in direction, saying he would not invest Wyoming’s funds in foreign stocks. Like Hill and Haynes, he disagrees with the state’s current economic development model. “I don’t believe in the Wyoming Business Council picking corporations to give money to,” he said. “I don’t think the state should be giving large corporations money, increasing their profit margins.”

At one point during the debate, Redo appeared to answer a question about the Great Recession of 2007-2009 by saying that it ended with World War II. In closing, he self-described his professional experience as “extremely dated.”

Gordon was also tripped up by a historical question. He seemed vague on describing the significance of Teapot Dome, a notorious scandal from the 1920s involving improper leasing of the federal Naval Petroleum Reserve near Midwest. However, when it came to topics directly within his purview, Gordon was comfortable in articulating details, such as how the $40 million annual cost of hiring outside investment managers balances with the benefit of growing the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund. Since 2009, that fund has grown by some $3 billion dollars. Over the past ten years the total state investment portfolio has grown from $5 billion to $18.69 billion.

Perhaps the most notable policy proposal offered by Gordon is an effort to loosen up investment restrictions on the State Agency Pool and other short-term savings accounts, which at this point can only be invested in bonds. In 2016, he plans to offer up a proposal to invest these funds in other vehicles like stocks, which would have to be approved by the voters through a constitutional amendment. This follows on a similar course advocated by former state treasurer and current U.S. Representative Cynthia Lummis, which changed the rules on permanent fund investing to allow the purchase of more stocks and private equity. That strategy comes with risk, but has also opened the state portfolio to higher growth over the past decade.

At present, the public has only limited access to information needed to evaluate Wyoming’s outside fund managers and their investment choices. Redo said he would make an effort along these lines, while Gordon said that knowledge of the investments should be “accessible” to the Wyoming public. If Gordon or Redo have a more specific plan on how to improve transparency, they didn’t explain it during the debate.

For more detail on what candidates said in the debates, read GOP candidates for Wyoming governor and treasurer debate on PBS.

Click here to see the full schedule of Wyoming PBS debates from August 11-14.

— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com or follow him on twitter @GregNickersonWY.

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Gregory Nickerson

Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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  1. There’s so much hot air and make believe in these candidates’ statements that it’s hard to choose where the fact checking might start. Still, a little fact checking could go a long way here:

    – Could we hear more about Mead’s “productive” relationship with the WRIR tribes? How does withdrawing funding for the liaison positions, ignoring invitations to talk about the recent EPA decision and filing suit against the EPA without consulting the tribes make for a “productive” relationship?

    – Could we get details on that portfolio from the state of Wyoming? If we’re 57th in the world in terms of sovereign wealth funds and since Mike Gordon is in favor of transparency, why can’t the public see the rate of return and the management fees associated with this investment portfolio?