Wyoming governor: Fiscal prudence but fund diversification

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming lawmakers should be prudent about state spending amid a looming budget deficit but not neglect efforts to diversify the state’s economy, Gov. Matt Mead said Monday in his final state of the state address.

Mead highlighted accomplishments over nearly two terms as governor, including how by every measure Wyoming state government is smaller than when he took office.

“This is remarkable, because as you know governments tend to grow, not shrink. Wyoming has bucked the trend,” Mead told a joint session of the Wyoming Senate and House.

Yet he urged lawmakers not to neglect certain state building projects and economic diversification efforts while keeping an open mind about reasonable ways to increase revenue, particularly for education.

“As I’ve said before and will say today, investment in Wyoming is a great investment, and this body has invested in Wyoming,” Mead said.

His remarks coincided with the start of a four-week legislative session devoted primarily to crafting a two-year budget. Lawmakers’ biggest challenge will be what to do about a looming, $850 million budget shortfall amid declining demand for coal and weak prices for oil and natural gas.

Fossil fuels provide 70 percent of Wyoming’s revenue. Mead has promoted efforts to invest more in recruiting business and technology, convening a panel that has recommended more investment in commercial air service, workforce training and boosting internet speeds.

Mead acknowledged some are skeptical about the recommendations, all which would require more spending when money is tight.

“We must listen to both camps. But I reject the notion that Wyoming is incapable of determining its own destiny, that our future will only be determined by commodity prices or other exterior forces,” Mead said.

Yet he also pointed out that fossil-fuel revenue is not quite as weak as it was last year — a trend that has removed urgency from the budget shortfall. Largely because of higher oil prices, the latest revenue forecast released in January predicted $140 million more revenue than the previous forecast in October.

“With investments in our future and opportunities on the horizon, the state of our state is strong,” Mead said.

Mead addressed an overwhelmingly friendly audience: 78 of the 90 members of the Legislature are fellow Republicans for one of the biggest Republican majorities in Wyoming history and nationwide.

Wyoming can’t continue to rely on coal, oil and natural gas for economic rescue but should continue to responsibly develop those resources while the federal government peels back regulations on fossil-fuel development, Senate President Eli Bebout said in a legislative leadership news conference after Mead’s address.

“Thank goodness for President Trump and some of the things he’s doing for Wyoming,” Bebout said.

In late January, the Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee rejected a handful of new revenue proposals, including a 1 percent sales tax at leisure and hospitality businesses. Only a couple proposed new taxes, including a $1-per-pax tax on cigarettes, remain on the table headed into the session.

Even so, consultants recommend increasing, not cutting, spending on one of the better-funded education systems in the country, pointed out Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss.

He promised his own ideas to fundamentally restructure Wyoming’s revenues.

“We’re obligated to pay that tab, to come up with sufficient revenue, be it internal revenue or savings,” Rothfuss said. “And that’s going to be a challenge.”

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