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Snapshot shows an improved economy, but downturn's fallout continues to mar outlook

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.

College Football
Craig Bohl expects Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen to be cleared for practice this week

LARAMIE — Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen’s chances of playing in Saturday’s game against Fresno State look positive but uncertain following the Cowboys’ weekly media day Monday.

Head coach Craig Bohl said he thinks Allen, who was injured late in the first half of Wyoming’s win at Air Force, will be cleared for practice “sometime during the course of this week,” but that his ability to play could come down to a game-time decision.

“We’re in hopes that he’ll return sometime this week,” Bohl said. “... We think we’re going to have Josh.”

The Mountain West preseason offensive player of the year, who was projected as a first-round NFL Draft selection, suffered the injury late in the first half of Wyoming’s 28-14 win Saturday. He began the second half at quarterback, but left the game in visible pain after throwing his first pass.

Allen’s mother posted on Facebook late Sunday that he had an AC joint sprain and would be having X-rays on Monday. Bohl said he did not believe any structural damage was done to Allen’s shoulder.

“There’s some soft tissue issues with it,” he said. “Obviously, when you have a quarterback (and) it’s his throwing shoulder, everybody’s going to respond differently. It’s just going to be contingent upon how fast Josh comes back to where he can have some zip on the football.

“Like I said, structurally, the information that we were given, he’s in good condition there, and it will just be a matter of time to when he’s able to come back and return. And we’re in hopes it’s sooner than later.”

Allen took multiple hits on Wyoming’s final full drive of the first half against Air Force, one on a first-down trick play and another on a third-down pass. Both fell incomplete.

“I think it was combination of the two hits, both on first and third down,” Wyoming offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brent Vigen said. “He took different shots on both. I think at halftime, I think he felt like he could go, and then obviously he went out there and threw that first pass and just didn’t feel like he was up to par.”

Allen was not made available to media Monday, as Bohl said he was receiving medical treatment. Allen was also unavailable after the Air Force game.

Allen did appear to suffer an upper-body injury against Oregon earlier this year, but Bohl could not say whether Allen’s shoulder sprain was part of a recurring problem.

“That’s so far removed, I can’t even remember the Oregon game,” Bohl said. “I know we didn’t win, but Josh is a competitive guy. This is an important game for him. All our games are important, so he’s going to do everything he can to get ready to go.”

Allen grew up 45 minutes west of Fresno, California, in the small farm town of Firebaugh, and he was a Fresno State fan growing up. The Bulldogs did not offer Allen a scholarship out of high school or after he played a season at Reedley (California) College.

“I think between the medical staff and the doctors, I think they’ll give us and Josh the right advice,” Vigen said. “Generally speaking, if it’s something that can be played through, whatever the injury might be, we typically play them. And if it’s a situation where a guy can really further damage himself, we don’t.

“Whether a guy really wants to play or not, I think all our guys want to play no matter what the game is. Given that it is Fresno, close to where Josh grew up, I do think that’s important to him, but at the same time, his prolonged health is what’s most important to him and our team.”

The Bulldogs currently lead the West Division with a 5-1 conference record. Wyoming is also 5-1 in Mountain West play, but needs to win its final two games while Boise State loses its final two games to return to the Mountain West Football Championship Game. Saturday would be Allen’s first time playing against Fresno State.

“The fact that it is Fresno, I think he’ll be out there,” junior safety Andrew Wingard said. “But you’ve got ‘play the team that didn’t recruit you’ on this side or ‘save yourself for the NFL’ on this side. So it’s a really tough decision for him. With Fresno and him being a non-offered guy out of high school, I think he’ll find it in him to get out on the field.”

Allen nearly chose to leave for the NFL after his breakout 2016 season but decided to return for another season at Wyoming. Despite a slow start this year statistically, Allen was still being projected as a first-round selection in the upcoming NFL Draft. Allen has not yet formally announced whether he will leave for the NFL with a year of eligibility remaining.

Female sexually assaulted in UW stadium parking lot Friday night

A female was sexually assaulted in a University of Wyoming stadium parking lot on Friday night, according to an email sent to students and staff on Sunday.

The victim — whose age and relation, if any, to the university is unclear — was walking across the East Stadium parking lot adjacent to War Memorial Stadium on Friday night when she was tackled by a suspect she did not know, the email states. The suspect sexually assaulted her.

There are few other details about the attack. Chad Baldwin, the spokesman for the university, said the victim, who has chosen to remain anonymous, has not filed a formal report with law enforcement, though evidence has been collected should she decide to.

The email did not include information about where the victim was going at the time she was attacked.

Baldwin could not provide a description of the suspect.

University police became aware of the attack at around 2 a.m. Sunday morning. Baldwin said they are investigating and have attempted to get in contact with the victim, though he did not know whether they’ve had any success.

“The information we got did not come from the victim,” Baldwin said. “It was not direct information from the victim. I think the police would love to have that information.”

Baldwin could not say whether the victim was a university student.

He said that university police are the lead investigators on incidents that happen on campus and that they may ask other agencies — like the Laramie Police Department — for assistance, though he could not provide details about this specific investigation.