SHERIDAN — Gov. Mark Gordon delivered his State of the State address at the Wyoming Capitol in Cheyenne to signify the start of the 2020 legislative budget session Monday.
“Today, I am proud to report that the state of Wyoming is strong,” Gordon said, kicking off a hopeful speech about Wyoming’s economy and projected growth.
Gordon presented himself as a defender of Wyoming’s way of life and core industries. He thanked many special guests for their perseverance and determination in positions as first responders, state employees, ranchers and miners.
Gordon addressed some of the state’s greatest challenges in the past year including coal and natural gas industry instability, vulnerable irrigation infrastructure and education spending — though his faith in the state’s pioneer spirit brought most legislators and guests to their feet in applause throughout his address.
Gordon appeared confident that Wyoming is headed in the right direction to bring new business, survive adversity and become a healthier state by “aggressively” seizing opportunities in energy and other sectors.
“I’m anxious to see our state once again become the model where anyone can create wealth from their own enterprise, grit and work ethic,” Gordon said.
Gordon highlighted Wyoming’s population growth, decline in unemployment to the lowest rate since 2008, increasing gross domestic product and personal income as examples of the state’s resilience despite “obvious challenges.” The state economy remains strong, he said.
Wyoming’s steady 1.13% population growth rate is considered healthy, according to World Population Review.
“We are strong thanks to our people, we are strong because we have planned well for challenging times and we are strong because of our industries: energy, tourism, agriculture and the emerging sectors of knowledge-based business and manufacturing,” Gordon said.
The state unemployment rate was lower at the end of 2019 than 2018 at 3.7% — slightly higher than the U.S. average, according to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, Research and Planning. Unemployment declined in 17 counties and rose in six.
Tourism continued its upward trajectory as a critical part of the state’s economy last year, bringing an additional billion into the state over 2018, 5.2% wage growth in tourism and hospitality positions and more than 32,000 new jobs, according to the Wyoming Office of Tourism.
Adding to his affection for his home state, Gordon said Wyoming has positioned itself in an “enviable place” among U.S. states because savings remain available — providing enough time to make thoughtful considerations about the budget, he said.
Gordon proposed dipping into the state’s reserve fund with his $3.1 billion 2021-2022 budget proposal to balance declining revenue from coal and natural gas while avoiding agency spending cuts.
Gordon said his budget proposal, passed by the Joint Appropriations Committee, was intended to “trigger” conversations about diversifying the state economy and charting “a fiscally stable path” between traditional industries and new opportunities. Fiscal stability includes curbing statewide capital construction projects and negotiating the future of education spending, he said.
“Given that it’s hard for us to afford to pay the people we need to staff these buildings, it makes little sense to continue to build as aggressively as we have when times were more flush,” Gordon said.
His budget provides $55 million less than the $150 million state agencies requested for construction projects. Gordon proposed $238 million for school construction, including school safety projects.
Wyoming loses skilled, productive and knowledgeable workers to out-of-state jobs with more competitive wages every year, Gordon said. Employee health insurance and retirement contributions have increased, which deters employees from remaining in Wyoming, he said.
The state has some of the highest insurance premiums in the U.S, according to health insurance and reform authority Louise Norris. State employees become fully vested in retirement after four years and the state pays about 85% of monthly health, dental and life insurance.
Focusing on longevity in the workforce will help avoid the costly process of repeatedly training new employees — especially in state positions where today, fewer employees are asked to perform at a higher level with fewer resources compared to 10 years ago, Gordon said.
“While I understand Wyoming’s reluctance to offer permanent salary increases in this revenue climate, I’ve proposed a one-time bonus aimed at recognizing talent and retaining talent,” Gordon said. “If we want to reduce government, in my view we can only do it with motivated people who know how to do their jobs.”
Gordon’s proposal would provide about $20 million in one-time bonuses for state employees.
Gordon highlighted the importance of retaining quality employees in the wake of significant events like the Blackjewel mine closure, during which Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality employees stepped up to support miners, help them find new jobs, negotiate mortgage schedules and stabilize the mine, Gordon said.
“Things could have been much worse,” Gordon said. “And they were elsewhere in coal country.”
Gordon appeared as an advocate for cleaner coal production, claiming he will protect the state against “unconstitutional restraints on trade.” A 10-year battle with Washington state over a coal port along the Columbia River continues — Montana and Wyoming have now filed complaints with the Supreme Court, arguing Washington is using the Clean Water Act as a weapon to avoid development. Gordon described the restrictions as “arbitrary and capricious,” and threatening to Wyoming’s way of life.
Gordon said he is pushing for legislative and regulatory reform on Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, which prohibits a federal agency from issuing a permit or license for operations within U.S. waters unless the host state for the operations issues or waives a water quality certification.
Gordon further promised miners he would have their backs as the coal industry comes under attack. Wyoming has yet to seize all available opportunities to develop clean coal production and use byproducts more efficiently, he said.
Even with natural gas spiraling downward, Wyoming remains the nation’s leader in coal and uranium and eighth for oil and natural gas production, he said. Wyoming supplies 11% of the nation’s electricity and stands third in overall energy production. Gordon said renewable energy advancements are “broadening the portfolio.”
Gordon thanked President Trump for a “strong and cooperative” relationship with federal partners regarding the 48% of Wyoming that is public land. Gordon said he will used science-backed information to balance recreation, private land owner rights and development with natural resources conservation and wildlife corridors for mule deer and antelope.
“It is absolutely not a land grab,” Gordon said. “Nor a way to create hundreds of routes, nor the spaghetti map that some are saying it is.”
Gordon asked legislators to continue a culture of accessibility and engagement with the public in the new Wyoming Capitol building, during and after the budget session — to fill the halls with energy and optimism and to elevate the idea of the building as the “people’s house.”