Gov. Matt Mead’s office released its long-awaited 20-year plan on diversifying Wyoming industry on Wednesday night, offering an array of strategies intended to break the “boom and bust” cycle that have long defined the state’s economy.
In a Thursday morning press conference in Cheyenne, Mead gave an overview of the nearly 100-page framework for the state’s economic development policy, a broad, overarching set of guidelines comprised of 50 specific recommendations that set a general direction for the future of the state.
“The challenge is how you go about doing this,” said Mead, emphasizing ENDOW is intended to be a long-term, proactive effort that needs to be approached with an acknowledgement that times are changing, but still takes the state’s traditionally strong sectors – particularly natural gas – into consideration.
“If we say [things are] good enough, what we’re saying is the future of Wyoming should be determined by oil prices,” he said.
First announced 18 months ago, the report – released by the state’s Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming (ENDOW) Executive Council – details an ambitious set of economic development goals for the state that include, over the course of the next two decades, the addition of 100,000 new jobs (35 percent of which will be in rural communities), a 30 percent reduction in youth outmigration and increases in both personal income and gross domestic product of 79 percent and 82 percent, respectively.
The report itself is based upon one distinct premise: that while “change is inevitable, growth is optional,” and that in order to maintain its population in a changing world, Wyoming must embrace and adapt to that change as a way to “future-proof and expand” the economy, the report says.
“This is a strategy,” said Mead. “The easy part is coming up with a plan – the hardest part is doing the work.”
A taxing change
Accomplishing the goals of the plan will require numerous elements.
The first is acknowledging economic growth “requires tax change,” aiming to boost the state’s tax revenues to more easily afford services that, for a family of three, can cost $25,700 more than their average tax bill.
“This is clearly unsustainable,” the report suggests. “For a citizenry that prides itself on the independent cowboy spirit, citizens and non-mineral businesses are not paying their fair share (i.e., the mineral industry is effectively subsidizing everyone else in the state).”
According to a June report by economic forecasting firm REMI that examined the needs of the state economy, Wyoming’s revenue models are strained due not only to a lack of personal income tax or a corporate tax, but also the state’s overwhelming reliance on the energy sector, which in turn means a lack of property and sales taxes. While some of those issues could be addressed by a concerted economic development effort, the timeline for conversations around further tax reform will likely become clearer heading into this year’s legislative session.
Using the illustration of a house as an example, the ENDOW plan names several foundational priorities – such as infrastructure, an entrepreneurial ecosystem, sufficient accommodations for workforce development and education – as principle priorities behind the development of five key industries the state hopes to foster. These include tourism and recreation, natural resources, knowledge and creative industries, agriculture and advanced manufacturing. With a change in leadership anticipated this November, the timetable to move toward these priorities will be fast-paced, with the first meeting on the plan with legislators set for Monday during a gathering of the Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee.
While the program, the governor said, “lives or dies with the private sector,” public funding for infrastructure — good roads and water — will be paramount to the success of the council’s recommendations. Mead said he was unsure if the funding request for the program’s various plans would be made prior to the legislative session this winter. However, he plans on meeting with the candidates for his position in the coming months in a transition meeting, hoping to make steps that will allow the new governor to work well with the ENDOW council.
The cost of the state’s share of the infrastructure funding is currently unknown.
The report, its authors emphasize, does not “contain every answer, nor will every recommendation succeed or be the right solution for Wyoming.” However, they assure the reader that “each and every proposal is well researched, thoughtfully considered and an important piece of the puzzle in diversifying Wyoming’s economy for future generations.” And each of those pieces have ambitious goals.
Business and education
In regards to education, the state hopes to expand the University of Wyoming’s influence statewide, and is aiming for a benchmark of 67 percent of the state’s population to attain a degree in some form of higher education by 2025. By investing in quality-of-life measures such as parks, and improving transportation networks, the state plan aims to create an environment attractive not just to tourism, but to further economic development.
The state has even named the lofty goal of attracting $1 billion in private venture capital funding to Wyoming, with an eventual goal of 5,000 jobs created by Wyoming-based startup companies, assisted by an increase in research and development funding at the University of Wyoming and the establishment of various “zones” that each have specific focuses and incentives encouraged to grow the economy in a strategic fashion through numerous, emerging industries like robotics. The ENDOW plan, Mead noted, counts at least 12 recommendations on moving the startup community forward.
“These businesses are just starting to emerge,” said Mead. “So we want to know, how does Wyoming get a piece of that pie?”
These plans also include strategies for innovating in agriculture, hoping to expand broadband access in rural areas and using the University of Wyoming as a statewide force to help spur additional gains in farm productivity and production.
Tourism is another distinct prong of the plan, with the state offering goals of increasing tourism revenues by several billion dollars over the next 20 years and aiming to increase visitors’ lengths of stay – which they hope will help them meet a goal of 30 percent increase in state and local sales tax revenues.
The plan also re-commits itself to investing in the industry that provides a vast majority of Wyoming’s tax revenue and has long served as its economic lifeblood: coal and natural gas. The plan aims to maintain or increase production levels of coal, oil, gas, bentonite and uranium heading into the year 2038 while, simultaneously, working to establish the University of Wyoming as a pre-eminent research university for energy development while setting the stage for the rise of other, non-carbon faced forms of energy like hydro and wind.
“If our strategy is successful, in 2038 our shared vision for the future of Wyoming will be a reality,” the report reads. “Because the true purpose of our strategy is to make the lives of families and citizens in Wyoming better, the best way to visualize this future is to look at a Wyoming family in 2038 and examine the myriad ways in which the actions we take today will change their lives tomorrow.”
All that’s left to do, the governor said, is making it happen.
“We’ve got a strategy, we have citizens that want it,” said Mead. “The only thing missing is the willingness to follow through. I believe we can do it.”