The Wyoming Legislature is an annual gathering in Cheyenne of elected representatives who have a lot of free time in the winter — people who apparently do not have jobs, children to raise, or anyone who wants them at home. Your representative, reflecting your values.
But nevermind, because … well, because you generally don’t: no one pays much attention to the Wyoming Legislature, not if they have jobs, children, llamas to feed, or a science fiction novel to read. I, on the other hand, paid attention for years because I was covering the Legislature for Wyoming PBS. (Which you may not know, because it was PBS, and, here again, no one pays much attention…)
While we weren’t paying attention, the 90 legislators in Cheyenne devised ways to spend about $3 billion a year, fueled by 18 years of revenues from an energy boom.
Often, they ran out of ideas, and dumped a few million into savings accounts hidden around the Capitol, with inventive names like “coffee cans.” But now the fossil fuel energy industry is going bust — or, since it’s a War on Coal, been killed in action — and the cans are needed to catch drips from the leaks in the State Capitol dome, which is being renovated for about $300 million. Good timing, guys.
After all those boom years of spending like Jeb Bush in a Donald Trump casino, it’s tough to deal with a bust. We can’t simply stop legislating — that would mean giving up the regal $150 that legislators get paid for each 12-hour day they work in Cheyenne, Wyoming’s premier party city.
Rather, we have to think up some bills to pass that won’t cost the state anything, but can keep those legislators at work and on the payroll. Here are eight suggestions:
1) Sell the Capitol.
It will cost $300 million to fix it up, and legislators are meeting almost daily to talk about whether a stairway is wide enough, the ceiling is yellow enough, or if the blue skylights in the architects’ drawings are in fact gondola canals. What a way for legislators to start off the bust cycle, spending $300 million on new digs for … themselves! The truth is, now that they’ve moved out “temporarily” for the Capitol improvements, the legislators are sitting pretty in brightly lit new chambers at the Jonah Building. Committee meetings are being held, for the first time in memory, in rooms larger than an Applebee’s restroom. The state auditor and other statewide elected officials (did you know you elect the Auditor? Do you know what she does?) is secretly (well, not anymore) quite happy with the “temporary” move to the airy, fourth-floor digs. Instead of taking $300 million out of some tin can to renovate, let’s save it and put the Capitol on the market. Someone will find a use for the space. Walmart. Arch Coal. Planned Parenthood.
2) Wyoming Resident Re-rebate.
For years, Wyoming Rep. Dave Miller (R-Riverton) has offered bills to give the state’s budget surpluses back to Wyoming voters, on the premise that this is, after all, their money, not the government’s. Back in 2005, Miller proposed $2,000 per resident of the $1.8 billion surplus generated mostly by energy severance taxes. The bill fails every time. I forgot to ask him if he had time to offer it again in 2016 — he’s busy trying to get all federal land in Wyoming put under state ownership, because, apparently, he enjoys failure.
(Miller’s finest moment was in 2012, when he tried to prepare Wyoming for the imminent apocalypse with a bill to study state plans for food storage, our own currency, and keeping order amidst anarchy, which was then amended to include an aircraft carrier. But I digress.) In a year of budget shortfall, though, the resident cash dividend idea might work a little differently. Logically, perhaps, it would shift into reverse: if we believe budget surpluses generated by the energy industry should be passed along to the residents, perhaps budget deficits generated by the collapse of companies like Alpha Natural Resources (and their reclamation self-bonding shortfalls) should result in residents of Wyoming making a contribution to help poor Alpha limp on, or at least fill the holes it’s dug up in northeast Wyoming. Rep. Miller?
3) Cut legislator’s salaries!
Well, they don’t actually get a salary. They get paid $150/day during the session, and less when they go to committee meetings during the rest of the year. They get $109 in per diem for meals and a room. (While rooms in Cheyenne hover around the $100 mark, there don’t seem to be any restaurants still open there, so meal costs are way down.) I can’t find any state that pays less. But just in case, let’s LOWER that daily pay from $150 to $149.
4) Designate a Wyoming vegetable.
We have a state bird (the Western meadowlark), a state butterfly (the Sheridan green hairstreak butterfly), a state dinosaur (the triceratops), and a state grass (wheatgrass!). Let’s declare a vegetable.
But let’s not be simple about this (our state butterfly, after all, is the Sheridan green hairstreak) – let’s make the state vegetable the Morel mushroom, so we can have an extended debate (perhaps extending the legislative session by another day and earning our solons another $150!) over whether mushrooms are, in fact, vegetables. Doesn’t cost a thing.
Wait! I’ve just been told that the Legislature is, as we speak, considering a bill to designate a state shrub. That’s enough heavy lifting for one year in the State Icon department.
5) Capital Gain Gain.
Can I sneak this one in under the guffaw radar? Seriously, let’s institute a small capital gains tax in Wyoming. Here’s why. Wyoming does not have an income tax — it’s one of six states that don’t. Every time our energy gravy train gets burned up on the stove, Wyoming progressives (all three of them) talk about a state income tax. But it’ll never happen — if it did, Jackson would become a ghost town. How about, then, a small capital gains tax? The federal government has a lower tax on capital gains than it does on income — that’s right, we tax dollars earned by work more than we do those earned by cashing in grandpa’s IBM stock. The few other states without capital gains taxes aren’t going to lure Wyoming residents — not Arkansas, at least, and certainly not South Dakota. A money-maker.
6) Give it ALL back.
A majority of senators felt this month that taking $268 million in federal dollars to extend Medicaid services to more people in Wyoming would be a big mistake, because, they say, we can’t depend on the feds to keep paying it in the future. And, according to Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper), “it isn’t going to do much good” for the health of people it would help cover. Which is EXACTLY how I felt when I got a colonoscopy last fall. And here’s the inscrutable logic: Turn away federal money for health care during an economic bust, and you are, apparently, being frugal with our battered budget.
We’ll just assume Charlie and the boys are better at math than the rest of us. In fact, let’s apply their math to some of those other programs which, our Dr. Who time travel wisdom tells us, will surely let us down after we’re hooked: REFUSE payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (under which Washington compensates us for federal property not on the local tax rolls) — this will fit nicely with Dave Miller’s plan to claim all that real estate anyway; REFUSE federal highway money, which has come to Wyoming by the semi-load in recent years (in fact, we better tear up all those new roads before they, I don’t know, start charging tolls or something); REFUSE federal school lunch money before our kids get hooked on food or some other gateway nutrient, because it’s only going to be taken away. We MAKE money on this one. Apparently.
7) Elect the State Veterinarian.
Isn’t it time? We hold statewide votes for a number of offices where we don’t actually know what the elected officials do. I made some fun of this in a recent column, and Cynthia Cloud, the State Auditor, called me up about it. So, I’m not referring to the State Auditor. But I think I could vote responsibly for a State Veterinarian — I’ve had dogs, cats, and even a horse. It wouldn’t cost us anything to add a line to the ballot, and it would encourage pet-owners to participate in Democracy.
8) Declare a War on Cola.
All it takes is a resolution. No budget dings there. It’s a bad moment in the War on Coal, now that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is gone, and a deadlocked court is likely to send that stay on emission cuts back to the appellate court that okayed it. (Digressing again — sorry — let’s not go there.) But if we’ve lost the War on Coal, we need a new battlefield to rally the populace, and it would be fairly simple to switch two letters in the press releases and declare War on Cola.
That way, we can keep alive the effort to buy a Wyoming aircraft carrier, and protect representatives like Dave Miller from losing their $150/day — sorry, $149/day — for lack of legislating.
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I like your idea #6. Let’s give all that money back. Let’s refuse payment in lieu of taxes – and charge the federal government taxes on the land at the same rate we charge private land owners. Where in the Constitution does it say the federal government is immune from property tax? In fact, where is power of the federal government enumerated to own property (other than forts, arsenals, etc.)? Under the 9th and 10th amendments, the power to own land resides in the states and the people. And let’s reject federal school lunch money – and stop feeding kids lunch in school. It’s a great step away from socialism: the idea that if you elect to have a kid, you’ve elected to pay all the kid’s feed bills until you turn them loose. And yes – tolls paid to drive on roads could pay for their upkeep. Most would be paid by vehicles passing through the state anyway. Anyone who’s driven I80 knows all those trucks aren’t here for tourism.
Loved your book, What you see in Clear Water. I take issue with your expressed opinion that the legislature over-spent during the 18 year boom. Be more specific, tell us what was wrong with what they spent. Did they not save enough, or are you lampooning them because it is such a conservative, Republican government?
Good job! I would be laughing if I weren’t crying because of personal issues with the decisions made this session.
Thanks for the bit of humor Geoff on an otherwise totally depressing topic – the Wyo legislature. You’d think there would be more than enough laughs to go around with all of the clowns bumbling their way around the capitol but they are so bad at it that it is just more depressing.
ALEC and Susan Gore’s Wyoming Liber-TEA Group are happy to spoon feed ideas to the legislature in times like these, and (most of) the legislature is happy to accept those ideas with no questions asked.
Thank you, Geoff, for some humor about this legislative session! You bring up some very good points. I especially like the one about the state capital building. In fact, this could be an opportunity to move the capital to a more centrally located position in the state, perhaps encouraging more people to run for office. We could certainly use some new perspectives.