Improved air service and internet access top the list of funding requests for Endow, Gov. Matt Mead’s economic diversification project. Endow’s leadership presented the $56.3 million request to state lawmakers Friday.
That amount includes $15 million for expanding commercial air service in Wyoming, $10.3 million to improve access to broadband internet and $11 million for supporting entrepreneurial efforts and innovation research in the state.
An additional $20 million would be moved from the state’s mineral trust fund into an investment fund to put money into Wyoming businesses.
“The hard truth is diversifying our state’s economy for the long-term is going to take some investment,” Endow chairman Greg Hill said in a statement. “We should not embark on these efforts unless we fully understand they will be multi-year and multi-million dollar undertakings.”
Other recommendations from the council did not include funding requests. They are:
- Start teaching computer science to public school students;
- improve “higher education attainment and retention of graduates”;
- provide resources for workforce training;
- begin favoring in-state contractors for government technology needs;
- authorize virtual currency trading in Wyoming.
The council’s statement noted that workforce training might require funding in the future but that further study was needed.
The statement added that other opportunities for diversifying Wyoming’s economy included research and development of the blockchain — a type of technology that enables virtual currencies like Bitcoin — vertical take off and landing technology, and wind energy.
If the Legislature approves Endow’s funding request, the money would likely come from the state’s rainy day fund. Mead had requested $37.5 million for Endow in his December budget proposal as a placeholder until the council released its specific funding needs.
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The $20 million that the Endow council is calling for being invested in Wyoming businesses was not included in Mead’s earlier request.
Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, has favored cuts over increasing revenue but has been a supporter of Endow and the effort to diversify Wyoming’s economy more generally. In a statement included in the Endow press release, Bebout said he believed the funding request would be approved by the Legislature when it meets in February.
“(W)e must balance the realities of our state’s fiscal situation with strategic investments,” Bebout said. “I remain cautiously optimistic that we can do just that during the upcoming legislative session. After all, if not now, when?”
House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, also backed the funding request.
Infrastructure tops list
The Endow council’s recommendations were made in a 25-page report that was mandated under the law authorizing the diversification effort passed last winter.
It is broken into three main sections: infrastructure, education and “entrepreneurial development.”
Air service and internet access are the two areas of infrastructure identified as in need of improvement and the Endow report outlines a plan for how to spend roughly $25 million across both areas.
The report backs the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s bold plan to essentially become an airline, contracting with regional carriers like SkyWest and GoJet to provide reliable service between Wyoming cities and the regional hub in Denver.
“With the exception of Jackson, Casper and Gillette (and potentially Cody), Wyoming commercial air service is vulnerable by virtually any metric that is important to sustainable air service,” consultant William Swelbar said in the report.
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Endow recommends $15 million to fund the CASP project.
The report also identifies access to fast and reliable internet as an impediment to Wyoming’s economy, noting that internet speed in the state is lower than the national average and that the state ranks 46th in “connectivity.”
Rural residents are especially hard-pressed to find fast and reliable access, the report states.
In the proposal outlined in the report, the Wyoming Business Council would oversee a broadband coordinator and Broadband Advisory Council to provide specific recommendations to the Legislature and governor’s office for improving internet access in the state.
The goal would be to have internet speeds up to 1 gigabyte per second in “all business corridors in all Wyoming counties.” That is up from a statewide average of 17 megabytes per second today.
The Endow council is requesting $175,000 per year to fund this effort.
The proposal also includes the creation of a Wyoming Broadband Grant Fund, which would spend $10 million to improve physical internet infrastructure especially in rural areas.
On education, the council recommends implementing computer science standards for K-12 students in the state with a goal that by 2024 all Wyoming high school graduates would have completed two computer science courses and that the University of Wyoming would grant over 100 computer science degrees per year.
The report does not ask for any funding to complete this recommendation.
The council is also recommending that the state seek to boost the number of state residents with college degrees from the current 45.8 percent to 82 percent by 2040. That is higher than the University of Wyoming’s current goal of 75 percent by 2040.
An inadequate workforce was identified as “Wyoming’s single greatest inhibitor” for “growth and stability” and the report recommends creating a program within the Department of Workforce Services to offer continuing education funded by both the state government and private sector.
While the report states that the training should be “in priority economic sectors” identified by Endow, it does not say what those sectors are and adds that the Legislature must determine what resources are needed for the program.
Mead said last year that he expected Endow to put forward a major request to the Legislature to fund workforce training programs.
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Investments called for
The Endow council recommends allocating about $11 million for two programs supporting businesses in the state.
The first is called Startup:Wyoming and is focused on “building Wyoming’s entrepreneurial ecosystem” by investing in companies and providing other resources. The report asks for an allocation of $5 million for staffing and an additional $20 million to be invested in the fund from the Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund.
The second recommendation calls for establishing the Wyoming Research and Innovation Fund to provide money for federal grants that research projects in the state currently miss out on due to a lack of matching dollars. The fund would be overseen by Startup:Wyoming and should be allocated $6 million, according to the report.
Endow was started in the fall of 2016 and is meant to be a 20-year process to diversify Wyoming’s economy. The council’s final strategic recommendations are due in August.
“These preliminary findings represent just that and are only a first step in a long-term process to achieve meaningful and sustainable results for the state of Wyoming,” Endow vice-chair Bill Schilling said in a statement.