With exactly one month to go until Election Day in Wyoming, three of the state’s four candidates for governor – Republican Mark Gordon, Democrat Mary Throne, and Constitution Party candidate Rex Rammell – met Saturday for a televised interview in Cheyenne.
Hosted by CBS Channel 5/KGWN – and moderated by former anchor Robert Geha – the roughly hour-long debate covered a number of key statewide and local issues to start debate season, including numerous questions on the economy, taxes and the energy sector.
With several debates left until the Nov. 6 election, there is still ample time to dissect candidates’ stances on numerous issues. However, several things stood out in this first event, including where candidates were strong, what differences there are between the candidates, and what has yet to be discussed as Wyoming barrels toward election day.
Differences between Gordon, Throne become clearer
Both front-runners have reputations as more moderate members of their parties. Both have come to agreement on several areas on the campaign trail – including the need to diversify Wyoming’s economy while supporting the fossil fuel sector.
However, differences that were once subtle became a lot clearer after Saturday night’s debate.
“I didn’t get into this race to tell people what they wanted to hear,” Throne said at one point. “I got into this race to tell people what they needed to know.”
And throughout the evening, she made a number of statements in sharp contrast to those made by the two other candidates on stage. Throne said she would revive hopes for a “more equitable” tax structure outlined under the Tax Reform 2020 plan (which failed to be introduced by a 3-2 vote in the state’s Joint Committee on Revenue last session) while examining increases to the lowest industrial and commercial property tax rates in the nation, a marginal increase to which “would seem to be fair.”
Making ends meet, however, was not going to come from slashing the size of government, areas which Rammell and Gordon both support.
“I feel we’re being unrealistic if we’re not willing to talk about taxes,” said Throne. “State government has been cut to the bone. I meet state employees in Cheyenne who say they’re currently doing the job of four people. We have a prison that can’t stay staffed because we haven’t paid our guards enough. We’re sending prisoners to Mississippi. I think everyone in Cheyenne knows that state government has been cut to the bone in ways that are actually costing us money.”
Gordon, meanwhile, reiterated his stance that Wyoming first needs to learn to “live within its means,” identifying efficiencies and budget cuts where appropriate. The most reasonable way to do that, Gordon explained, may come from reducing the state’s construction budget and through streamlining its economic development strategy, while giving more control to municipalities, including the right to tax themselves. (Throne agreed with this, particularly on the example of sales tax.)
“I don’t think we need to talk about tax increases at this point,” he said. “We have priorities we need to set – the buildings we need to build, the things we’re doing to diversify the economy.”
Other areas the two diverged:
1. Non-discrimination laws: Throne – who has long been outspoken about expanding anti-discrimination protections for members of the LGBTQ community in the workplace – said she would support their passage not just as a moral issue, but as an economic development issue. Gordon, when asked, said the state was already “embracing and open” and that the state constitution already stipulated equality for all, both political and natural. “I think that’s where the state needs to be,” he said, before moving back to an earlier question on tourism. Rammell, meanwhile, said the state did not need further protections because, once, he worked for a member of the LGBTQ community and saw no discrimination in his workplace, so he didn’t see it as a problem.
2. Scale of government: Gordon said Wyoming needs to grow its economy and reprioritize what it does with government, focusing on building government from the bottom-up so operations in Cheyenne become “lean and mean.” He recommended several cuts that could be made and identified one example where he, in his own words, had objected to the scale of things like the Capitol Reconstruction project, which he said could have saved millions if rolled out in stages. Throne pushed back on this, saying that the project – which expanded from renovations of the historic capitol building to the entire, five-building campus – was done in order to take advantage of efficiencies between all the projects and, in Gordon’s rhetoric on the budget, he hadn’t identified any specifics on what he would cut.
Rammell relies on strategy as a disruptor
One of two third-party candidates in the governor’s race this year (the other – Libertarian candidate Lawrence Struempf – was not in the debate), Rex Rammell is already considered a long shot for the governor’s seat this year, as made evident by his attack strategy on Saturday.
Rammell called out both candidates for veiled indications throughout the evening they would support tax increase (Throne hinted at some – for commercial and industrial businesses – and Gordon, as a potential discussion after all remaining efficiencies and cuts were identified) and directly attacked Gordon’s background with groups like the Sierra Club, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and Friends of the Earth. Gordon said later in the evening that Rammell “lied several times tonight,” clarifying his role with the Sierra Club was in order to protect the agricultural interests of Wyoming and a donation to the clean energy-bolstering Rocky Mountain Institute was to support a coal-related solution to a hydroelectric power study.
Rammell also made an eyebrow-raising remark, commenting Wyoming didn’t want to “rape” visitors to the state by approving an industry-supported 3 percent lodging tax. He also provoked a spirited remark from Gordon about his proposal to transfer the state’s investment portfolio into a state bank similar to North Dakota’s. Gordon said Rammell’s idea was a “novel one,” coming from a “progressive state” by way of a “communist who supported it to start with.” (Arthur C. Townley – former leader of the populist socialist group “Non-Partisan League” in the early-20th Century.)
Gordon improves clarity of message
As treasurer, Gordon won plenty of recognition and plaudits from both state and national representatives for what he’s done with the state investment portfolio. But on the campaign trail, he’s had a harder time explaining his work to the layman.
On Saturday, Gordon clearly defined the impact he had made on the average voter throughout his tenure and was better about explaining the impact of growing Wyoming’s investment portfolio, touting the $900 million in earnings the state’s investments made this year – equivalent to $1,500 in savings for the average taxpayer. He also pushed his ideas around implementing rules concerning spending of the state’s rainy day fund, which often goes untouched. He advocating for rules similar to those in Oklahoma that limit the amount that can be spent in any given year.
Throne did, however, grill Gordon on several areas of his proposals, including how he would fund anticipated shortfalls in the state’s education budget and what areas of government he would specifically cut, saying that additional cuts would actually cause the state to lose money long-term. To drive this home, Throne noted the turnover rate for school employees is approaching 17 percent and governmental turnover can cost $23 million annually.
Numerous issues still on the table
While the issues discussed Saturday were extensive, several other topics remain on the table. These include:
Specifics on school funding:
- With limited time to answer, the candidates did not discuss in detail of how they would solve the looming fiscal woes facing the state education system.
Solving the state’s incarceration rate:
- Wyoming’s incarceration rate is increasing, bucking a national drop. Though Throne did touch on the overcrowding of Wyoming’s correctional facilities, a discussion on mental health funding, diversion services, and other topics remain to be had in a debate forum.