SHERIDAN — Candidates for several state offices pitched voters during the Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce’s candidate forum Thursday, highlighting their platform distinctions before the general election Nov. 6.
Three candidates are vying to become Wyoming’s next governor, however the two major party candidates did not participate in Thursday’s forum.
State treasurer Mark Gordon, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, did not attend the forum due to a prior engagement, but sent a statement to be presented in his absence.
Gordon identified three priorities he would pursue if elected: better equipping small communities with resources they can use to improve their towns, creating a network of state agencies that can help Wyoming businesses launch and facilitating improvements to Wyoming’s education and healthcare programs.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Throne also did not attend the forum but also sent a statement. Throne has made economic diversification central to her candidacy; in her statement, she wrote that mitigating Wyoming’s boom and bust cycles will require broad community input as well as an infusion of new ideas.
Throne has been outspoken about the need to address the state’s tax structure in order to benefit from a diversified economy and has committed to addressing some of the structural challenges to Wyoming’s economy. She advocated building broad coalitions to address economic challenges in the state. Rex Rammell, the gubernatorial candidate from the Wyoming Constitution Party, participated in the forum and detailed a platform that largely focused on limiting the state government and eliminating regulations on private industries.
He said that, if elected, he would order a complete audit of state departments and state personnel, and he was confident he could identify hundreds of millions in cuts to government based on that assessment.
Though he is skeptical of efforts like Gov. Matt Mead’s Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming initiative, he believes the state could play a role in facilitating economic diversification by redirecting its investments. Rammell advocates moving the money in Wyoming’s investment portfolio, which totals about $20 million, and using it to set up a state bank that could use the money to distribute business loans.
Rammell said he also believes Wyoming’s governor needs to guard against overreach by the federal government and said that, if elected, he would challenge the jurisdiction of the federal government on public lands.
The two candidates running to become Wyoming’s next state auditor presented voters with two different takes on what the office requires.
Democratic candidate Jeff Dockter described the position as an agency head that manages staff and oversees the department’s operations. Emphasizing the role technology plays in the management of the office, Dockter said he would use technology to improve transparency and update the functions of the state auditor’s office, so it remains technologically compatible with the businesses and technologies emerging in the state.
Republican candidate Kristi Racines stressed that the auditor is the state’s chief accountant and payroll office. She said the position is responsible for certifying that the state’s balance sheet be accurate and comply with accounting principles. Racines also noted the serving on the State Land and Investment board is a crucial responsibility.
The candidates agreed, however, that improving transparency will be imperative for the next state auditor. The current state auditor is facing two lawsuits from citizens’ groups claiming the auditor has been slow to fulfill public records requests and is overcharging for those requests.
Dockter said, if elected, he would release the information the groups are seeking on his first day in office and work on strategies.
Racines said she would push the legislature to invest in new software for the auditor’s office, as data extracted from the current software needs to be manually vetted and scrubbed of sensitive information, which is one of the reasons the auditor has been slow to fill record requests.
But Racines said simply releasing the information would not be sufficient. She said the state auditor’s data needs to be released in a format that the average citizen can understand. Promoting understanding of the office’s data would also likely require education efforts, Racines said.
Dockter has a similar goal for the auditor’s data and said ultimately the financial information released by the office should tie funding appropriations to expenditures.
House District 40
Two candidates are running for the House District 40 seat. Republican Richard Tass ran unopposed in the August primary, but former Clearmont Mayor Chris Schock decided to run for the seat as an independent after an unsuccessful Republican primary run for the Sheridan County Commission.
Tass did not attend Thursday’s forum, nor did he send a representative to present a statement on his behalf.
Schock identified a diverse range of priorities he would pursue if elected to the state Legislature. He said he would fight to maintain the direct distribution funding the Legislature distributes among local governments in the state. The Legislature has recently discussed eliminating that funding due to budget shortages, but Schock said local governments have come to rely on it.
He also said he would like to see the state take steps to become more dementia friendly. Schock said that his wife was diagnosed with dementia in her 40s, and he has often had to travel out of state to find treatments for her.
Schock also said he believes the state will need to find ways to diversify its economy going forward. He was asked specifically about efforts to create stable air service in Wyoming, underlining that the service would assist the state’s efforts to attract new businesses. However, he added that though air service is important, the $15 million the Legislature appropriated to the Air Service Improvement Council may have been an overcommitment.
State Senate District 21
The two candidates running for the Senate District 21 seat, which will be vacated by Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, when he retires at the end of his current term, competed for the House District 51 seat two years ago, when Rep. Bo Biteman, R-Sheridan, won his first legislative office.
Biteman said that, while he considers his first term in the state Legislature a success, he feels there is still a lot of work to be done.
In particular, Biteman said he would like to see further cuts to the state budget so that Wyoming can withstand future economic busts. Additionally, Biteman said he was focused on improving transparency throughout the state government and would fight to keep taxes low; he has vowed to vote against any tax increase until he feels the state has sufficiently curbed its spending.
Democratic candidate Hollis Hackman said he was motivated to run for legislative office after seeing the effects of legislative cuts to education funding while serving on a local school board. He said that though the state is struggling through an economic downturn, the Legislature maintains reserve accounts that it could draw on to sustain funding for crucial services like education until the economy improves.
Biteman said he has fought against cuts to education funding during the latest budget session because he believed the budget included unnecessary funding in other areas. He did not, however, advocate drawing on reserve accounts to pay for education.
The two candidates also expressed very different feelings about the ENDOW initiative. Hackman said the initiative offers Wyoming a long-term path toward economic diversification that is based on feedback from stakeholders throughout the state. Biteman, meanwhile, called ENDOW wasteful spending and argued that it is not the government’s role to diversify the economy. Diversifying the economy, Biteman said, should be left to entrepreneurs and private businesses.
The candidates split along similar lines when it came to the state subsidizing the development of air service. Hackman said air service is currently a critical lack in the state’s infrastructure, and the state will need to address that lack if it hopes to attract new businesses or other economic opportunities.
Biteman, however, said the government should not subsidize private enterprises like air service providers and instead let the success or failure of those enterprises be determined by the free market. Subsidies, he argued, eliminate competitive pressure on providers, which in the long run will create a weaker service.
Hackman identified two additional priorities during the forum: keeping public lands in the public domain and increasing the availability of affordable healthcare, primarily by expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act.
General elections for all state and local offices will be held on Nov. 6. Early voting is open.