Wyoming’s exclusion from a list of 60 finalist communities and entities competing for federal grants under the Build Back Better Regional Challenge program is without merit and politically motivated, Gov. Mark Gordon and all three Wyoming congressional delegates said.
Like Wyoming, no applicants were selected from North Dakota or Montana, which also face a transition away from coal — a key determining factor of the federal stimulus program.
Gordon, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis — all Republicans — derided the Biden administration in a press release issued from the governor’s office within hours of the announced finalists on Monday.
“I am furious that this administration has turned its back on the number one coal-producing state, but given their track record to date, I am not surprised,” Gordon said in the release. “These decisions are clearly political and not based on merit.”
The blanket rejection of all Wyoming applications, Barrasso added, “is a slap in the face to our coal communities, energy workers and their families. Either this was a terrible oversight that can be quickly corrected, or it was another direct, intentional assault on Wyoming’s livelihood by an out-of-touch administration.”
The Wyoming Energy Authority, University of Wyoming, Campbell County and City of Cheyenne submitted individual applications to the Build Back Better Regional Challenge program, which solicits regional-scale plans to diversify local economies. Coal communities are among the priority targets in the federal stimulus effort, as well as native and rural communities, according to the Economic Development Administration, which oversees the effort. Greater “economic equity” is also a key goal.
The program is part of the American Rescue Plan Act, which all three Wyoming congressional delegates voted against.
“This decision further underscores why I voted against the initial $1.9 trillion dollar bill that created this program, because it’s clear that the funding in the legislation would not benefit the people of Wyoming,” Cheney said in the release.
The 60 finalists will compete to be among three to eight regional projects that will each be awarded $100 million, according to EDA.
Several more granting opportunities remain for Wyoming communities under multiple ARPA programs aimed at diversifying local economies. The Wyoming Energy Authority and University of Wyoming have not received feedback from the EDA about why their projects did not make the cut, sources from those entities told WyoFile.
Early skeptics of state action
Some local economic development officials complained in August about a lack of coordination by the state to help communities collaborate, prepare projects and apply to the program. Responding to the criticism, the Wyoming Energy Authority and Wyoming Business Council announced in October they would provide more assistance and coordination.
“We’ve taken that [criticism] very much to heart because that is our role: to be able to provide that support and collaboration,” Wyoming Energy Authority Program Director Anja Bendel told WyoFile in October. “So we’re taking a much more visible, active role.”
Sheridan business owner Logan Jenkins was among those who worried that state and local officials in Wyoming were unprepared to apply to the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, and encouraged more collaboration. Monday’s fiery language from Gordon and Wyoming’s congressional delegation in response to Wyoming coming up short reeks of hypocrisy and likely doesn’t help Wyoming’s case, Jenkins said.
“We know we can get four politicians to respond on the record, on the same day, within hours of the announcement,” Jenkins said. “So my question is: Where were they when we needed help? We’ve been asking for help for months.”
Wyoming leaders might be suffering under a sense of entitlement, Jenkins added, because the state is arguably the largest coal community in the nation facing a major economic transition away from coal. But that doesn’t let communities off the hook from putting forward projects that fit the parameters of the federal program, he said.
“What was in the applications?” Jenkins said. “Did they fit the parameters? These are supposed to be regional partnerships, and a region is not Campbell County.”
The Wyoming Energy Authority and Wyoming Business Council have provided support and consultation to several entities in the state vying for the Build Back Better Challenge, according to Bendel.
“The short-term support was very concrete in collaborating with communities across the state on the specific funding opportunities through the Economic Development Administration,” Bendel told WyoFile. Parties discussed what projects communities are working on so that the state “can consolidate our efforts and have one voice going forward.”