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The 800-pound gorilla

On Feb. 14, Wyoming Legislators will gather in Cheyenne to start the 2022 budget session.

First and foremost, the Legislature has to pass Gov. Mark Gordon’s 2023-2024 biennium budget.

As legislators prepare, there is good news and bad news.

The good news is the state’s budget shortfalls were not as big as originally anticipated. Gordon’s proposed budget of $2.3 billion is larger than anticipated, but still smaller than the previous two-year budget cycle. That’s thanks to a boost from federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Sales tax revenues were also up slightly.

For the smaller-government, less-government-spending contingency, there’s still more good news. While the 2023-24 budget is slightly smaller than the previous biennium, it’s about half the size of the state’s 2010 budget. (If you account for inflation, the proposed budget is closer to 40% of the 2010 budget.)

The bad news is that the state’s budget is being propped up by one-time cash infusions from the federal government. That’s not a long-term solution to what has been a slow-moving train wreck.

Beginning in 2016, then-Representative Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, began to sound the warning bell about the state’s potential revenue problems. Wyoming has very few ways to raise funds, and at that time, 70% of the state’s revenue came from the energy industry.

Leading up to the 2017 session, Madden called the state’s budget the “800-pound gorilla in the room.”

Sadly, the 800-pound gorilla is still here in the room. Wyoming has done nothing to diversify its revenue streams.

“Our entire radar scope is filled with budget concerns,” Sen. Dave Kinskey said in 2017. “Everything else will come in a distant second. When the energy industry crashes, it blows a big hole in the state budget.”

The common refrain has been that Wyoming must learn to live within its means. However, even Kinskey acknowledged in 2019 that budget cuts alone had not solved the state’s budget woes.

“Budget cuts failed to fully close the gap,” Kinskey wrote. “...There is room for still more discipline in other parts of the budget, but slowing the rate of increase becomes a challenge in the face of spending proposals that seem to come in increments of $10 million.”

In July 2020, Gov. Mark Gordon called for 10% to most state agencies.

Gordon warned the cuts would “hurt.”

During the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers approved Gordon’s cuts. But they killed numerous proposals that would have raised revenues to offset some of those cuts. And despite loud, and frequent declarations, that education funding and sustainability was a top priority, an education funding reform bill died on the session’s final day.

So, once again, the legislature will meet to pass a budget. If the state is not going to consider any new revenue streams, then we must decide what services we can do without. Don’t be fooled into thinking this will only affect state services. Water flows downhill. And, if expedient, the legislature will not hesitate to cut county, city and school funding.

The low-hanging fruit has already been eliminated from the budget. The next cuts will impact school funding, aid to local communities, snow removal, police protection, road construction and government employees. The next cuts will affect everyone in Wyoming unless the legislature decides to do something about that 800-pound gorilla in the room.

The above editorial was originally published in the Buffalo Bulletin on Jan. 12.

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