SHERIDAN — Education funding, the state budget and different types of jobs were topics addressed by a panel at the 45th annual Powder River Basin Resource Council meeting Saturday at the Holiday Inn.
The theme of the event was “Reclaiming Wyoming & Diversifying Our Economy” and featured a three-person keynote panel moderated by journalist Dustin Bleizeffer. The panel members were Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo; Mark Haggerty, an economist with Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Montana; and Rob Godby, the director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming. The panel discussed possible ways to diversify the state economy and revenue, and all of the accompanying challenges.
The overarching theme from the panel members was that economic and revenue diversification are complex issues that likely won’t be solved in the near future, and certainly not all at once.
Madden was asked if state politicians are practical enough to change the tax and revenue structure to help encourage economic growth. He said he wasn’t sure if the Legislature will “have the courage to do the right thing, but it’s very clear to people that understand what’s going on here, that we can’t go on the way it is now.” Madden didn’t specifically articulate what “the right thing” meant, and of course legislators have different views on what that entails.
Bleizeffer asked if a practical way to achieve economic diversity exists without overhauling the current tax structures. The short answer is no, Godby said. He said there aren’t any economic centers in Wyoming, like Denver or Salt Lake City. Godby went on to say that only low taxes aren’t enough to attract businesses. There need to be other factors, but it is difficult to tell what some other specific factors may be.
Haggerty touched on the changing job market, with most growing and technology-related jobs gradually moving to cities over the past few decades. Cutting the budget will not help Wyoming compete to bring new jobs to the state, he said.
Madden discussed two potential options that may help diversify the state’s economy, the wind industry and large data storage facilities. He said the wind turbines “generate about $14,000 to the school foundation program,” which is almost the same as the cost to educate a public school student.
The panel also took a few questions from the audience of around 100. One of the questions, asked by a teacher, was centered on what tangible actions a concerned, reasonable citizen can take to help improve the state. Madden said a simple yet effective solution is to make one’s opinions known, either through a group or directly contacting a local legislator.
Haggerty said it is key for politicians to nurture all ideas, because there may be a time in the future when those ideas can help bring solutions.
Godby said it can be difficult to go against powerful lobbying groups, such as those who are vehemently against raising taxes. Godby said some people he knows would prefer an increase in taxes if the other option is cutting the state’s education budget, and it is important to voice those opinions. He also said a rational, pragmatic approach is vital, and that people need to deeply consider a fundamental question: “What is the Wyoming we want?”