State Sen. Fred Baldwin speaks during the Evanston Chamber of Commerce Legislative Report on Thursday, March 29. (COURTESY PHOTO / Sheila McGuire)
Now that the 2018 budget session of the Wyoming Legislature has come to a close, residents were able to hear from the five Uinta County legislators during the Legislative Report sponsored by the Evanston Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, March 29.
State Senators Paul Barnard (R-SD15) and Fred Baldwin (R-SD14), along with Representatives Garry Piiparinen (R-HD49), Danny Eyre (R-HD19) and Tom Crank (R-HD18), were all in attendance and took the time to share information on legislation and the session in general, as well as answer some audience questions.
Sen. Barnard opened the evening and said the recently-wrapped session was “one of the most contentious sessions ever.” Barnard said he was unhappy nothing was really done to address the state’s budget situation.
“We kicked the can down the road, and again the county people and cities took it in the shorts,” he said.
He also spoke about the ENDOW initiatives that received $41.5 million in funding from the legislature.
“There are some things in there I agree with and some things I don’t,” he said. “But we can put money in ENDOW … but it’s good to put money into our communities too.”
Sen. Baldwin agreed with Barnard’s characterization of the session.
“It was contentious and difficult,” he said. “Long-time senators all said this was the toughest budget session they’d seen.”
Baldwin said he was particularly concerned by the failure of bills developed by interim committees to even be introduced during the session.
“There were a lot of committee bills developed during the interim that committees worked very hard on,” he said. “The hope is that the committee bills are good bills. Many didn’t even get introduced and that’s not right.”
Rep. Piiparinen’s first comments were to let everyone know how much he appreciated the prayer and Pledge of Allegiance at the start of each day during the legislative session. He also said he wants people to know about some of the difficulties of being in the legislature, not related to bills.
“I want people to know legislators have to travel Wyoming roads,” he said. It’s not all fun and games.”
Piiparinen said there were several tax proposals that came up during the session, and “I said no to all of them.” He continued, “Wyoming has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. We took money from savings instead of dealing with the elephant in the room and looking at getting spending down.”
He also expressed his concern about the number of bills considered that had nothing to do with the budget and said he had asked the Wyoming Legislative Service Office to look at a bill requiring the focus to be on the budget during a budget session.
“There are lots of legislators who like to hear themselves talk,” he said. “We were wasting time on bills that just got in the way.”
Rep. Eyre said it was an honor to represent House District 19.
“I took that trust seriously and I’m glad to be able to serve,” Eyre said.
Eyre said he wanted to stress how blessed people in Wyoming have been in terms of taxation.
“We have the lowest tax burden on individuals of any state. We’ve had it very good,” he said. “We’ve been blessed because the minerals industry pays 75 percent of the bills.”
Referring to Wyoming’s recent fiscal woes, Eyre said the legislative session didn’t really address the looming deficit.
“There were over 100 amendments to the proposed budget and almost all of them were to add to it,” he said.
Rep. Crank focused his comments on legislation that would directly impact Uinta County, like the funding for the new construction at the Wyoming State Hospital and funding for relocation of the road leading to the Westmoreland coal mine.
Crank said he was hopeful the “pendulum would start to swing the other way,” in terms of the statewide economy. “I think we’re starting to see that,” he said. However, Crank also said he believes the legislature is going to have to make changes to avoid a repeat of this situation in the future.
Rep. Tom Crank (R-HD18) speaks about the need to address Wyoming’s economic structure during the Legislative Report. (COURTESY PHOTO / Sheila McGuire)
“I have the opinion that if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving back,” said Crank. “We need to talk about cuts, using savings and revenue. I think we need all three. We didn’t talk about revenue. I’m sorry, but I’m trying to be honest. We need to look at our tax structure. The only tax bill we looked at was a slight increase in alcohol tax. It went down in flames.”
All of the legislators referenced efforts to diversify Wyoming’s economy.
These efforts, which have been a hot topic ever since Governor Matt Mead introduced the ENDOW initiative, include workforce development programs, investment in commercial air service and broadband, and the multiple bills passed into law dealing with blockchain technology and cybercurrency.
“We’re trying to get it to where the state will still be strong when minerals go down,” Barnard said.
Baldwin mentioned a license plate bill that was passed, which takes the proceeds from plate sales and puts them toward mitigation efforts directed toward wildlife on Wyoming roadways.
Baldwin also referred to the creation of an opioid abuse task force to deal with the epidemic of opioid addiction.
Piiparinen said he supported a couple of bills that were passed specifically dealing with firearms and self-defense.
Some of these bills allowed for concealed carry of firearms in places of worship, and Wyoming’s “Stand Your Ground” bill.
“I was a proud sponsor of the Stand Your Ground bill,” Barnard said.
Piiparinen, an elementary school teacher, said he voted against the addition of computer science to the education basket of goods requirements. “Teachers have too much to do already,” he said.
Eyre took a few minutes to emphasize the new Wyoming State Hospital construction project and the relocation of the Westmoreland coal road, Hwy. 30.
“Because of that,” he said, “about 300 high-paying jobs have been preserved for the next 20 years,” he said.
Following the statements by legislators, attendees had the opportunity to ask questions. Audience members asked about funding for suicide prevention, which was increased, and the proposed tourism tax on lodging, which did not pass.
The most significant applause of the evening came when local resident Walter Riebenack asked about the possibility of getting a community college in Evanston, specifically on the current grounds of the Wyoming State Hospital in the buildings that will be vacated following the new construction.
“We need a campus here very badly,” Riebenack said. “It could be the greatest economic driver southwest Wyoming has ever had.”
Riebenack said local people were traveling to Utah to go to school, and said if people were serious about the need to educate young people, a community college was really the only option.
While his comments received resounding applause from both the audience and speakers, the legislators said at this time there are no definitive plans on the future of the WSH buildings and there were no comments as to whether a community college campus is even a possibility.