Wyoming voters put Legislature on path to budget disaster

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This march toward dystopia has been steady over the past decade, as moderate Republican legislators have been replaced by far-right candidates in their party’s primaries.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.

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 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.

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