Wyo. governor pledges to protect, promote fossil fuels

Source: By Mead Gruver, Associated Press • Posted: Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Wyoming has enough savings to take its time and be thoughtful about future spending cuts, particularly for education, amid declining revenue from fossil fuels, Gov. Mark Gordon said yesterday in his second annual State of the State address.

Yet Gordon promised not to dither amid what he described as efforts by other states to boost renewable energy sources at the expense of the coal, oil and natural gas industries.

Wyoming produces energy more safely and with more concern for the environment than anywhere else in the world, said Gordon, a Republican.

“And yet our industries are still discriminated against, maligned and decried as dead. Well, not on my watch,” Gordon said to applause and cheers from a joint session of the overwhelmingly Republican Wyoming Legislature.

The address by the first-term Republican kicked off a monthlong legislative session dedicated primarily to the state’s next two-year budget cycle, which begins July 1.

Budgeting has been tight for several years now amid a decadelong downturn in revenue from the state’s once-booming natural gas industry and declining demand for coal to generate electricity, a result of low natural gas prices.

Last year was especially tough for coal. Two of the biggest coal mines in the U.S., Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr, shut down for over three months while its owner, Milton, W.Va.-based Blackjewel LLC, went through bankruptcy and sold them.

Combined with weak prices for natural gas — by some measures the lowest in over 20 years — a more than 40% decline in coal production in recent years has left Wyoming in difficult shape, Wyoming House Speaker Steve Harshman, a Republican from Casper, said in a news conference.

“We’ve went through the steepest, sharpest, fastest revenue decline in the state’s history,” Harshman said.

Now, Wyoming’s savings during a decade or so of the boom times that started in the late 1990s gives lawmakers room to continue to reduce spending, Harshman said.

“We’re trying to use every tool we can,” he said.

Democratic lawmakers want to at least consider raising taxes and implementing a state income tax to keep Wyoming students among the top-funded in the U.S. per pupil.

There’s no way left to cut or streamline that funding without harming education, said Senate Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss, a Democrat from Laramie. “I can tell you, we haven’t found it yet and it’s not for lack of trying,” Rothfuss said at the news conference.

Democratic tax proposals seldom get serious consideration in Wyoming. Republicans currently outnumber Democrats 77-12 in the 90-member Legislature, which also has one independent lawmaker.

Gordon’s proposed budget would keep state spending essentially flat after tapping a state savings account to avoid running up a roughly $200 million K-12 education spending deficit.

He supported Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow’s interest in updating the state’s school finance system as mandated by the Wyoming Supreme Court in the 1990s, suggesting a set of priorities known as the “educational basket of goods” had grown out of date.

“It was crafted when Amazon was only a bookstore and the Spice Girls were all the rage,” Gordon said.

Gordon called for one-time bonuses for state employees, whose pay has gone up little and whose numbers are down compared with a decade ago.

“We should be thinking about keeping the people who know what to do and how to do it,” Gordon said.

Other priorities of Gordon’s include planning to protect big-game migration routes, suicide prevention and improving water-supply systems like one in Goshen County that experienced a costly irrigation tunnel collapse in 2019.

Yet defense of fossil fuels was the predominant theme of his address.

In January, Wyoming and Montana asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the state of Washington’s denial of an environmental permit for construction of a shipping terminal that would enable more overseas exports of Powder River Basin coal, Gordon noted.

“Know this: Wyoming will always advocate for our industries. whether it be to protect against unconstitutional restraints of trade or in their endeavors for cleaner, more dependable and more affordable energy to our nation,” Gordon said.

Gordon also listed additional funding for promoting Wyoming’s coal industry, which supplies almost half of the nation’s coal for power plants, as a priority.

“Time is of the essence. We must act now if we are to stop coal mines from being closed,” Gordon said.