Wyoming is about to see where the Legislature’s increasingly hard turn to the right will take a state that is fiscally reeling.

It’s not difficult to predict what will happen when lawmakers convene in January. Social wedge issues will dominate.

Legislators will sharpen their axes to further cut education funding, ensuring that school districts will file lawsuits against the state. Social services to the poor, elderly and disabled will be slashed to the core.

Instead of trying to diversify Wyoming’s economy and raise tax revenue, expect bills to further prop up the state’s dying coal industry. Meanwhile, any measures to raise taxes to fund state government will be dead on arrival.

It’s as if Wyoming voters collectively stared into the abyss and jumped, jubilantly shouting “Wheee!” all the way down.

This march toward dystopia has been steady over the past decade, as moderate Republican legislators have been replaced by far-right candidates in their party’s primaries. A Wyoming Republican Party Executive Committee that demands fealty to its policy of no tax increases and a strict right-wing social agenda is firmly in control. 

The GOP has long ruled Wyoming politics, but this is ridiculous. The House will now have 51 Republicans, seven Democrats, a Libertarian and an independent. On the other side of the Capitol, two lonely Democrats will sit in the 30-member Senate.

The 2021 Legislature is notable for the number of lawmakers who didn’t even face an opponent in the general election. In the House, 62% of the races had only one candidate. The Senate figure was 60%.

I would blame the Wyoming Democratic Party for abdicating its role to at least recruit candidates to give voters a choice, but the Republicans’ domination of the Legislature has rendered such criticism moot. Why would anyone want to spend considerable time and money trying to win a seat in an overwhelmingly GOP district if a crushing defeat was certain?

During most of my 40-plus years covering the Legislature, it was inconceivable that Sweetwater County, the state’s bastion of Democratic lawmakers, wouldn’t have a single member of the minority party in its House and Senate delegations.

Rep. Stan Blake (D-Green River) lost his seat to Marshall Burt, the first Libertarian to be elected to a state legislature in the nation since 2002. Sen. Liisa Anselmi Dalton (D-Rock Springs) was defeated by Republican John Kolb.

Meanwhile, progressive Democratic Rep. Sara Burlingame of Cheyenne — who took far greater pains to try to work with Republicans than any legislator I’ve seen in many years — lost to the GOP’s John Romero-Martinez.

My prediction in an earlier column that the Legislature would add six women to its ranks was completely off target. A loss of one in the Senate was offset by the addition of one to the House, keeping the total at 14.

A contingent of incumbent far-right senators led by Sens. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) and Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) will be joined by several new colleagues, including former Rep. Tim Salazar (R-Riverton), Troy McKeown (R-Gillette) and Tim French (R-Cody).

In the House, Reps.-elect Robert Wharff (R-Evanston), Ocean Andrew (R-Laramie), John Bear (R-Gillette) and Bill Fortner (R-Gillette) will join the chorus of right-wing voices that have been defeating most tax measures. The few bills that survive will land in the Senate with a thud.

Wyoming faces an unparalleled budget crisis with a $1.5 billion deficit for the next biennium. There isn’t enough money in the Legislature’s “rainy day fund” to fill this hole, which will only grow as mineral tax revenue continues to dry up.

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The state could reduce the shortfall by passing a graduated income tax on individuals that wouldn’t touch anyone making less than $50,000 a year. By finally making the state’s wealthiest individuals pay their fair share, Wyoming could add up to $200 million per biennium to its coffers.

The Legislature has repeatedly rejected a corporate income tax that would only impact large companies with out-of-state headquarters. No matter who would pay the freight to provide essential social services and fund public schools, no income tax proposal will see the light of day for years.

But bet on legislators giving tax breaks to the coal industry, which isn’t going to recover from the nation’s move toward less expensive and more environmentally friendly wind, solar and battery storage to generate electricity. Lawmakers will latch onto Gov. Mark Gordon’s call to provide huge state subsidies for carbon-capture projects.

A statewide sales tax hike of 1% to raise $200 million a year? It won’t even be discussed. The same holds true for Medicaid expansion, which would add about $120 million a year in federal funds and provide health insurance to at least 19,000 of the state’s poorest residents.

The extreme right sect has other priorities: placing more restrictions on women’s right to obtain a legal abortion, repealing gun-free zones on college campuses and rejecting any attempt to pass anti-discrimination measures to protect the LGBTQ community.

I fully expect the failed “bathroom police” bill to return, so legislators can further debate what restrooms transgender people can use.

Moderate legislators who have correctly acknowledged that Wyoming cannot cut its way out of budget problems have been replaced by new lawmakers who feel that’s precisely the answer.

Gordon has authorized a 10% cut in most state agency budgets, including a $90 million reduction at the Department of Health. Another 10% cut is in the works, and the Legislature will slice even more from the budget.

Salazar, who supported a $2 million appropriation to restore funding to the defunct tax rebate for the elderly and disabled program in the House, will try to advance it in the Senate. Unfortunately, it will go nowhere. Social service agencies that provide a safety net for the state’s most vulnerable residents will either have to operate with much less or go out of existence.

It’s been said that voters get the lawmakers they deserve, but Wyoming doesn’t deserve what’s coming in the next two years. Other states that have enacted disastrous legislation and killed their economy have generally had to see things get so bad that it forces a dynamic political shift. 

Though its circumstances are different than Wyoming, Kansas is an example where the winds of change came swiftly after the extreme right passed enormous tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, while making draconian cuts to education and social services.

Moderate Kansas politicians who finally saw the light revolted, a Democratic governor was elected and the tax breaks were repealed. The state’s economy recovered, though, like Wyoming and most states, COVID-19 has again drained Kansas’ coffers.

I believe things generally have to bottom out before voters will insist on making changes to policies that irreparably harm them. I think that’s where Wyoming is headed.

I’m not suggesting that residents of this red state will start electing Democrats in droves. That’s not going to happen in my lifetime, though I think the party will make some modest gains in the next few years.

But a reckoning is coming. Moderate Republicans who see that the state government is falling off the rails need to return to power. I hope it’s before Wyoming has to bear the full extent of the economic woes engendered by the far right’s rejection of revenue-generating tax measures. 

Blindly clinging to the hope that the minerals industry will once again bring prosperity to the state is a recipe for disaster.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Leave then. You’d fit in well in that dumpster fire of a state California thinking more taxes will solve the problem.

  2. Just go into the legislative session, do the cuts to a busted Revenue stream, lay off-key elements in all State Government areas, and then process it further down the line to Counties and Local Governments.
    However, Mr. Drake has forgotten the US Census this year and its effects on Wyoming. Those Strongholds of Democrats remaining will be placed under the Gerrymandering mapping. Also, fewer state populations will mean less grant money from those wonderful legislative people in Congress to dole out to Wyoming.
    New election laws are a thing of the past, removing dark money, open primaries, and even new Parties allowing other choices on Candidates are pipeline dreams in Wyoming for that Fracking has already been accomplished by the poor leadership of the Democratic party and Far Right of the Republican mentality.
    As for taxes, Wyoming has become Kentucky in the economic Bastone. The richest people are buying up the State, and legislative results will ensure the same Kentucky economic stature results.
    Wyoming borders will ensure white systemic outlooks in corporations in labor relations and servitude… Take Wyoming equality, diversity, education, healthcare, and the future and place it on Trickle-down Legislative Stupidy with poor plans, programs, policies, which have taken place for the past 47 years.

  3. Based on where America is going in terms of energy production it is very near-sighted of Wyoming’s voters and government to think that coal and fossil fuel production is all we need to maintain a healthy state into the future. Wyoming has been very fortunate through the 20th century to have those resources to fund our economy, but if we want to maintain our health as a state, to provide our children with the same excellent schools that I am a product of, to take care of the older generations who’s investments in the state support us now, and to continue to utilize some of the best infastructure I’ve seen across the country, then we need to diversify how we fund our government. We have been operating in the red for years now with cuts already in place, why do we think that we suddenly we can return to the black with only more budget cuts? I’m not saying there isn’t room for spending cuts, but cuts in the budget alone won’t balance our books. We need to generate new income, and the way governments get funded is through taxes. There is no free lunch. I don’t know if the answer is through increased sales tax, income tax, or taxing large corporations more aggressively, but we need to generate some revenue to meet the budget cuts half way.

    At the same time we have to address the state economy, these discussions go hand-in-hand. If fossil fuels are falling out of our economy we need to work as a state to develop a replacement resource to make up the difference. After all, we can’t support our government if we can’t support ourselves. Change is rarely free, it will require investment to facilitate these changes, and the earlier we identify how we do this the more likely we as a state are to have the funds to invest. Wyoming has so much more to offer the nation than just coal and oil, we just haven’t had to figure out how to utilize it in the past, but we do now. If we wait to ride the back side of change things will be much harder than if we are in front leading it.

    1. Well thought and presented. i agree with what you’ve said.

      Unfortunately, as a State, we should’ve started being proactive years ago. Possibly even decades ago. Hopefully our State’s old thoughts and habits will soon die off and we can begin looking towards the future.

      cheers

  4. drake you want same high tax ideas New york has for Wyoming. Why does this paper have greenies blaming Wyoming people who do not want high taxes.
    SIMPLE fix, you have less money you spend less money. Just like real working people do.
    Medicate expansion is code for more free loaders to move here.

  5. If any place ever needed a Green Party to spring into existence from the ethereal vapors , it is Wyoming , here and now.

  6. After seeing the futility of trying to elect Democrats, I’ve done what many other Democrats have done – switch parties in an effort to elect moderate Republicans. In most parts of the state it’s the primary that matters. I’ve seen reasonable Democrats with values very aliened with Wyoming voters on gun rights, land management etc. not even be given an second thought by Republicans on election day. The sentiment seems pretty clear that a horrible Republican is better than any Democrat…and now better than any traditionally “good” Republican.

  7. The highest combined Federal and state tax rate in CA is 62%. Democrats never saw a new tax and regulation they didn’t like. Never repealed an existing one. Live within your means, unlike CA. That’s why people are moving out of our state to your state.

  8. The idea that solving the state’s fiscal issues requires tax and spend Democrats is blatantly absurd.

  9. Sad, as Donald Trump would say. If state revenue and employment and education decline in Wyoming, won’t real estate values plunge too? But Wyomingites think of themselves as tough individuals and the financial crunch will put that belief, as well as political traditions, to the test . And the scenery will always be great.

  10. Wonderful! Now we can once again repeat the Kansas experiment. It worked so well that time. At least there the voters finally overthrew the idea and returned to sanity.

  11. I think the author misses the key reason Wyoming voters are reluctant to vote for Democrats. Voters in our state perceive that a vote for a Democrat is an endorsement of Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden’s policies. In Wyoming, that link is the equivalent of political suicide.

    1. Sure, but it doesn’t explain why voters keep bypassing moderate Republicans for more extreme candidates.

  12. :and before you research anything on Lithium here in Wyoming, ask yourself one question.
    Why would any “Good ‘ole Wyoming boy want to find Lithium in the ground?”