RIVERTON —The Wyoming Legislature has approved a statewide air service improvement bill that includes funding from the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account, or “rainy day” fund.
The $15 million allocation was a point of contention during debate in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The money will pay for implementation of a commercial air service improvement plan developed by the task force SF 40 creates.
Based upon the task force recommendations, the Wyoming Aeronautics Commission can enter into competitive bidding for a statewide commercial air service contract to replace the smaller, individual contracts counties and cities, including Riverton, negotiate annually with commercial airlines.
Some legislators who argued against the $15 million allocation said the money shouldn’t be spent until the SF 40 task force is able to complete its study.
On Thursday, Wyoming Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, said the task force might find that the state doesn’t need as many airports as it currently contains.
He alluded to Fremont County in particular, referring to the “center part of the state” where there are “two towns that are really close together.”
Maybe, Clem suggested, the study will determine a commercial airport in Fremont County is “counterproductive” and only serves to “take away business” from the airport in Casper.
“Let’s devise a plan and follow it ... once we figure out (which) airports we’re going to have,” he said. “We don’t need the $15 million yet.”
Wyoming Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, cautioned that SF 40 was “drawing different regions of the state against each other.”
“We’ve seen where this is kind of going,” he said. “I really think if this moves forward you’re going to see that in the way it’s implemented; it’s just going to continue.”
By contrast, Wyoming Rep. Tom Walters, R-Casper, countered that the program SF 40 envisions “brings the state together.”
Other representatives took issue with the idea of taking so much money out of the LSRA for air service improvements while the state contends with a “budget challenge situation.”
“We’re cutting education in our budget, we’re cutting core functions—things that were constitutionally mandated,” Wyoming Rep. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, said during discussion Tuesday. “We’re cutting those because we don’t have the money, yet we’re spending $15 million out of our rainy day emergency fund to subsidize air service. ... We can’t afford this.”
Wyoming Rep. Nathan Winters, R-Thermopolis, whose house district covers part of Fremont County, agreed that the $15 million should not be allocated at this time. He said the funding allotment would weaken the state’s negotiating power when developing a statewide contract for commercial air service.
“I don’t like signaling our intention in the midst of the bargaining process,” he said.
Some lawmakers said it’s common to put projects out to bid before providing the money for the work. But Wyoming Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, and Wyoming Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton, both argued that it isn’t practical to request proposals from airlines without a funding allocation.
“If you want a business-class lesson on how not to negotiate, this is it: Take the money away,” Miller said. “This is no way to negotiate.”
On Friday, Wyoming Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette, said five airlines already have expressed interest in the statewide commercial air service contract. Other senators said those airlines won’t be interested in submitting proposals if the funding allocation isn’t in place.