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WYOMING LEGISLATURE

Lawmakers convene at time of budget gap, talk economic diversification

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CHEYENNE — Wyoming needs to increase economic development at a time when the state faces large shortfalls in government operations and education, legislative leaders said Tuesday.

The 64th Wyoming Legislature convened for a 40-day session launched with speeches, choir performances and other ceremonial activities.

Despite the celebratory nature of the first day of the Legislature, Wyoming faces “the biggest fiscal challenge that this state has ever seen,” said new House Speaker Steve Harshman of Casper.

With oil, gas and coal down, the Legislature must plug a $400 million hole in general government operations in the current $3 billion, two-year funding cycle, and a $700 million shortfall in the $3 billion K-12 education budget in the following two years.

But Republican and Democratic leaders talked about other goals, in addition to the budget.

Harshman, a Republican, announced in his first speech as speaker that he is sponsoring a bill that would coordinate efforts among several state agencies working on economic development. Different legislatures over the years have created initiatives that aim to diversify the economy. They typically end in a year or two. The effort Harshman envisions would last years after the current Legislature.

“We need to have a permanent (effort) that lives this night and day,” he said.

In the other chamber of the Legislature, Senate President Eli Bebout, a Republican from Riverton, and Sen. Chris Rothfuss, the Laramie Democrat who leads the minority party, agreed on the need to diversify Wyoming’s economy to help the state recover from the energy bust and to be better prepared for the future.

Rothfuss was more forceful in calling for an examination of new taxes, noting that economic diversification would only replace revenue the state received from the energy industry during the boom if the tax structure was adjusted.

“It’s not enough to expand and diversify the economy if we don’t look at changes to our tax structure to make sure we sufficiently tax non-mineral industries,” he said.

Bebout argued the state needed to look at deeper budget cuts — including potentially to education — before considering new revenue streams.

“The best thing we can do before we start raising taxes is to have a serious discussion about spending and government and K-12 education,” Bebout said.

“We cannot wait until the next session to start dealing with the huge shortfall in the education budget.”

But Bebout did not appear to rule out tax increases as he pointed to a white paper by a Legislature’s joint subcommittee working to address the education deficit released last month, which includes new taxes as one solution to the education budget deficit.

Rep. Cathy Connolly, the Democratic leader in the House, touched on a pending battle here — a constitutional amendment that would specify how the state would manage federal public land, should Washington transfer the terrain to the state. Sportsmen loathe the amendment because they don’t want Wyoming exploring transfer.

Connolly spoke against the desire to cut programs. She said people are especially vulnerable during economic downturns and the state should prioritize a number of programs, from early childhood education to suicide prevention.

“We show them that even in hard times like today, we have vision and we are invested in our people,” said Connolly of Laramie.

On Wednesday morning, Gov. Matt Mead will share his vision for Wyoming with lawmakers in the State of the State address.

Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock

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Star-Tribune reporter Laura Hancock covers politics and the Wyoming Legislature.

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