True Oil Co. Rig

A True Drilling rig operates Feb. 14 near Wright.

Christine Peterson, Star-Tribune

Wyoming’s economy is now performing better than it was during the energy bust, but has yet to catch up with the losses of recent years, according to a snapshot of employment, energy spending and tourism numbers released Thursday by state economists.

The snapshot offers an immediate glimpse of the state’s economy, from the amount of monthly sales and use taxes paid by the mining sector, to the number of tourists visiting Wyoming parks and the weekly wages in the private sector.

Between April and September of this year, the economy improved in these key areas every month by more than 2 percent compared to the year before.

The turnaround is an unquestionable improvement from Wyoming’s rock bottom. It’s no surprise that the state’s economy fell rapidly during a downturn in its key industries: coal, oil and gas. From high notes in 2014 when oil prices were pulsing over $100 a barrel, Wyoming slid rapidly to historic lows in some areas. Its unemployment rate rose and spending fell. Once robust revenue streams subsided in the drought.

For economist Jim Robinson of the state’s Economic Analysis Division, the snapshot continues a narrative now familiar in the state – a stabilizing economy with no expected boons around the bend.

On the job front, workers in the private sector worked more hours and earned better wages in September, a trend of improvement that is heartening, said Robinson.

Mining employment was up nearly 13 percent from last year’s September, according to the report, but overall private employment was down by about 1,500, largely due to a decrease in the leisure and hospitality sector.

In recent months, the state has maintained a steady pace in the areas measured in the snapshot, with the exception of a positive jump in August thanks to a solar eclipse that drew in huge amounts of out-of-state visitors who spent their money in the Cowboy State.

Otherwise, tourism numbers at Wyoming’s national parks were down from last year.

What the economists’ snapshot does not necessarily reveal is where Wyoming’s economy is headed, Robinson said. The sales and use taxes are reflective of what the mining sector — that’s the oil, gas and coal industries among others — is now spending. The unemployment numbers and the weekly wages are similarly immediate numbers.

Recent revenue projections released by state economists, and used to build the governor’s recommended budget every year, show some positive numbers over the coming two-year budget cycle. Oil and gas prices have improved and may creep up more. Coal prices and production have also improved and should maintain those firmer numbers in the next few years.

Reduced revenue is all the same a tremendous concern for lawmakers heading into the budget session in a few months. Operations for K-12 education is facing a $430 million deficit over the next two years, according to the state’s Legislative Service Office.

For Robinson, the state economist, Wyoming has already benefited from the recent increase in mining sector and rig counts across the state. In other words, the improvement has already happened, rather than being part of an upward trend.

Year to date, Wyoming’s mining sector has paid about $26.1 million less in sales and use taxes than is the norm. By the end of the year, that gap may narrow, Robinson said. But it doesn’t make up for the shortfall of many negative months.

In some indicators, private jobs for example, there remains a dramatic difference between now and the average of years’ past. From September 2014, when private sector jobs peaked, to late 2016 there was a steady loss of about 18,800 jobs.

The economy is settling, Robinson said. Improvements one month to the next may bring Wyoming closer to the norm, not above it, he said.

“We are in that pattern now where we are waiting for the next thing to give the state a boost,” he said.

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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