SHERIDAN — The Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming Executive Council released its preliminary findings and recommendations Dec. 31.
The 10 recommendations from ENDOW, Gov. Matt Mead’s project to diversify jobs in the state that began the fall 2016, focused on three main areas: infrastructure, entrepreneurial development and education and workforce training.
To fund the recommendations, the ENDOW Executive Council requested a total of $56.35 million, $36.35 million of which would likely come from the state’s Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, or rainy day fund. An additional $20 million would come from the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund and be used as a venture capital fund. In his budget last month, Mead asked the Legislature to set aside $37.5 million for ENDOW, which seemingly did not account for the additional $20 million.
Improving commercial air service and access to broadband and technology comprised the two areas related to infrastructure. The Commercial Air Service Plan would cost $15 million and would allow the Wyoming Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division to contract with one airline and provide daily flights to a major airport, like Denver.
Increasing broadband and technology access would cost $10.35 million, the vast majority going into a $10 million Wyoming Broadband Grant Fund for direct investment in broadband infrastructure, especially in rural areas across the state. According to BroadBand Now, Wyoming ranks 46th in connectivity in the United States.
The report also recommends establishing a Broadband Advisory Council and broadband coordinator position in the Wyoming Business Council at a cost of $175,000 per year. The coordinator would assess and report on broadband adoption statewide and, along with the advisory council, set up performance benchmarks.
Rep. Mark Kinner, R-Sheridan, supports these two recommendations and was pleased overall with the executive council’s recommendations and appreciative of Mead’s proactive approach.
Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, was more critical of the report.
“I’ve always thought this ENDOW thing was kind of a quasi-political vehicle,” Madden said. “They don’t really treat what our challenges really are, as far as competing with other economies, other infrastructures and so on.”
Madden said he had several questions about the air service plan, mainly on what the $15 million would be spent. He also questioned the amount of broadband spending.
“I don’t see that broadband is needed in small towns where there’s not going to be any high-tech development,” Madden said.
The ENDOW Executive Council recommended the creation of Startup: Wyoming to help build Wyoming’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The organization would receive $5 million every other year to provide funding, resources and connections for entrepreneurs across the state.
The recommendation also asks for $20 million from Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund to be used as a venture capital fund for entrepreneurial investments. Furthermore, ENDOW set a benchmark of creating over 500 new startup jobs in Wyoming by 2022.
Similarly, Startup: Wyoming would oversee the establishment of a $6 million University of Wyoming Research and Innovation Fund to help attract more federal science and engineering funding.
Kinner liked the idea of supporting entrepreneurship but was hesitant about the venture capital proposal.
“Venture capital is a pretty risky business, and so initially I want to think through that very carefully before we risk some money from the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund,” Kinner said.
Madden also voiced opposition toward Startup: Wyoming because he doesn’t think it is an appropriate use of mineral trust funds.
Education and workforce training
The ENDOW report recommended expanding computer science opportunities for K-12 students and set a goal of offering computer science access to all primary and secondary students by 2020.
Kinner agreed with the recommendation and voted for a bill proposed by the Joint Interim Education Committee that would incorporate computer science standards into the educational basket of goods. The bill will be introduced at next month’s legislative session.
Kinner’s enthusiasm was dampened a little bit because of the potential costs of implementation, however. ENDOW didn’t request funds for the recommendation, but money may have to be spent on training more computer science teachers, for example.
The report also recommended an improvement on higher education attainment and retention of graduates. The report set goals of 67 percent of working adults ages 25 to 64 possessing a valuable post-secondary credential by 2025, and 82 percent by 2040. The numbers are higher than those set by the University of Wyoming and state community colleges, which are 60 percent by 2025 and 75 percent by 2040.
Furthermore, it was recommended to allocate resources for workforce training. The report did not specify a cost for these recommendations but noted that funding will be necessary.
Other recommendations included establishing an in-state contractor preference for state technology contracts; authorizing virtual currency businesses — such as Bitcoin — to operate in Wyoming; and updating the ENDOW statute.
Madden came away disappointed that there was nothing related to dealing with a non-sustainable tax structure, as so much of the state revenue depends on the mineral industry. He wanted the Executive Council to propose basing the Wyoming tax structure on the tax structure of other states that have had economic diversification success.
“If we diversify away from the mineral industry, and we end up depending even more and more on the mineral industry to pay the bills that these new expanded business opportunities are going to cause, I don’t know what we’ve really gained by it,” Madden said. “It’s silly to talk about spending money on diversifying the economy if you realize and know already that if you’re successful in diversifying the economy, it just sends the state further down into (debt).”
A 20-year comprehensive economic diversification strategy from the ENDOW Executive Council is due Aug. 1, but some of the primary recommendations could be approved next month.
Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, is the Senate chairman of the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee and a non-voting member of the ENDOW Executive Council, which will meet Jan. 18 and 19 in Cheyenne.
In addition to the computer science bill, Von Flatern said the air service and virtual currency bills are already written, while the broadband and Startup: Wyoming proposals could be presented to the Legislature next month, depending on how the council meeting goes.
“If they come up with something more substantial than just allocating money to capital ventures or something, you may see a bill on that,” Von Flatern said.
ENDOW is a long-term strategy, but Wyoming may start seeing initial results in the near future.