An open governor seat in Wyoming always means a hotly contested race. But with the teetering economy stressing the state’s budget and political leaders divided on the solution, the stakes in this year’s contest are higher than usual.
The choices made by the next governor will help determine Wyoming’s long-term trajectory, as well as more immediate concerns such as whether to continue spending down the state’s rainy day fund or demand deep cuts to public schools and other key services.
“This is a very serious time for very serious issues in Wyoming,” said Republican consultant Liz Brimmer, who is not affiliated with any of the governor candidates.
The two leading GOP candidates according to polls, State Treasurer Mark Gordon and Cheyenne businessman Sam Galeotos, have largely stuck to consensus Republican policies — reducing government spending to grow the economy while avoiding tax increases — while the other top primary contender, natural resources attorney Harriet Hageman, has struck the most conservative tact on eliminating regulations and social issues.
On litmus test issues like guns and abortion, the Republican candidates have allowed little daylight between them. During a July debate hosted by Wyoming PBS, Gordon, Galeotos and Hageman all succinctly stated their opposition to “gun free zones” without explanation, and all supported President Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.
The trio has nonetheless sought to differentiate along lines of style, experience and approach.
As an underdog, Hageman has been by far the most aggressive, leveling attacks against Gordon for his past support of environmental causes and Galeotos for his private sector work in renewable energy.
“I have always and will always put Wyoming first,” Hageman said during the PBS debate. “But I don’t believe the same can be said of my opponents.”
Gordon has said that as an elected official, he’s the only candidate who has earned money for the state and cut public spending, while Galeotos argues that with the economy as a top concern for voters, his private sector experience is crucial and sought to portray Hageman as placing her ideology over the practical reality of operating a business in Wyoming.
The remainder of the Republican field has little more differentiation, with perennial candidate Taylor Haynes largely mirroring Hageman’s conservative stance on the federal government, Jackson financier Foster Friess leaning on his folksy charm and business acumen and Sheridan businessman Bill Dahlin presenting a less-polished version of Galeotos pitch on the importance of corporate experience. A Wyoming PBS poll conducted ahead of a Republican gubernatorial debate in July was used to place Gordon, Galeotos and Hageman in the headline event while relegating Haynes, Dahlin and Friess — all point at or close to single digits — in the undercard debate that followed.
Former state lawmaker Mary Throne appears to have a lock on the Democratic primary contest, with opponent Rex Wilde a single-issue candidate focused on legalizing recreational marijuana and another Democrat, Michael Allen Green, not appearing to be running a campaign.
Without any need to appeal to a conservative base of Republican primary voters, Throne has positioned herself as a pragmatic realist open to reforming the state’s energy-dependent tax code, expanding Medicaid while avoiding any cuts to public schools.
According to many observers, the question of how Wyoming will fund its public services as the state’s energy industry remains soft following the bust in 2015 will be the most pressing issue for the next governor.
“Whoever is going to sit in the governor’s chair is going to have to wrestle a bicameral legislature into doing something before we’re flat broke,” said author Sam Western.
Barring a massive energy boom that refills public coffers, that “something” likely means covering the state’s current two-year operating deficit of between $800 million and $1 billion by slashing spending beyond what the Legislature and Gov. Matt Mead have already done, or by raising new revenue through some form of tax increases.
(Doing nothing, or relatively little, remains an option in the short-term because Wyoming has billions of dollars in savings, which can temporarily allow expenses to outpace revenue without incurring debt.)
Western is skeptical that even the most conservative candidates would risk public ire by undertaking the massive cuts that would be needed to reduce the spending imbalance without new revenue.
“Your political orientation is almost secondary to the fact that Wyoming runs on one grand wealth transfer” from energy companies to residents, Western said. “The citizens of Wyoming have come to expect that money and when it is truncated or cut off there’s going to be hollering going on.”
Though many have said the deficit is a cause for alarm, few governor candidates have explained where they would find the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual savings to close the gap. And, with the exception of Throne, all the top candidates have largely ruled out tax increases.
While the various candidates have been relatively light on specifics, Brimmer, the Republican consultant, said some appear more interested in deeper cuts than others.
“It appears there are people that will have different instruments for how they would control government,” she said. “Some people will take a scalpel, some people will take a sledgehammer some people will use a stick a dynamite.”
Galeotos regularly discusses the value of the state’s education system and balances calls for cutting government spending with hints at moderation.
“We have to make sure to fill that gap by not spending money we shouldn’t spend,” Galeotos said. “I’m advocating for reduction in general, but it doesn’t always have to be slashing and burning.”
The candidates often suggest that their economic growth plans will be successful and spur enough new revenue that deep cuts won’t be necessary. Where spending reductions must take place, the candidates say they will target government waste that will not have an impact on state residents.
In 2016, Mead cut nearly $250 million from the state budget before asking the Legislature to reverse a portion of those cuts during its session this year.
“We never want to spend too much — and we haven’t — but if we spend too little, that can be a problem too,” Mead said in his State of the State address.
Lawmakers agreed to add tens of millions of dollars back to social service programs, including the Department of Health. But they also cut nearly $30 million from K-12 schools in the state. Those cuts came despite a consultant’s report presented to the Legislature that called for increasing education spending by $70 million and still left a several-hundred-million-dollar deficit in the school accounts that had to be covered with savings and revenue diversions from other parts of the state’s budget.
No candidates have called for significant cuts to education, though Friess has taken the lead in suggesting that the state could spend less on school administrators, perhaps by encouraging smaller school districts to voluntarily consolidate.
That idea was mocked by Throne during a debate and Western said it points toward the risk of recommending tangible areas where public spending could be cut. Unlike cutting back on road maintenance or laying off state employees within various agencies, consolidating districts or shuttering schools will provoke a more immediate reaction from residents.
“Next to CSU football and gun control, the most feared words in Wyoming are ‘school consolidation,’” Western said.
Without listing specific agencies or programs that could be cut or eliminated to realize significant savings, both Friess and Hageman have suggested that a more transparent budgeting process would inherently lead to less spending.
“Our government is the largest in the nation per capita and we’re number 50 in transparency,” Hageman said. “I believe those things are related.”
Friess has said he would like Wyoming to list its spending on a nonprofit website that tracks government budgets.
But when asked to elaborate on how they would go about cutting spending, the candidates tend to give generic answers while pointing to their personal backgrounds — Hageman as a lawyer experienced in fighting regulations, Galeotos as a businessman, Gordon as the current state treasurer — without being pinned down on any specifics.
“What you’re going to have to do is manage the expenditures in a way that can be sustained in a fiscally responsible way going forward,” said Gordon, who noted his familiarity with the state’s budget process.
Throne has largely shied away from discussing even an abstract need to cut spending, instead defending the importance of public spending to Wyoming’s economic health. She said that it will be difficult to recruit new workers or retain residents without strong services.
“They want amenities, they want nice places to live and they want a quality K-12 education system,” she said during a spring debate in Sheridan.
With Wyoming receiving roughly 70 percent of its revenue from taxes on the energy industry, and the coal, oil and gas prices continuing to sag, experts say it will be nearly impossible to maintain current service levels without some changes to the tax code or a speedy energy recovery.
“We’re at a critical point,” said University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts. Candidates “are avoiding addressing it because there isn’t any easy answer and there’s certainly not a popular answer.”
Roberts said that Wyoming politicians have always dragged their feet on the most difficult issues. He cited the Union Pacific’s abandonment of coal towns in the state during the 1950s, saying they eventually withered and mostly disappeared while elected officials took little action.
“They avoided discussing it because there really was no solution,” Roberts said.
While Throne has not laid out a detailed tax plan, she is the only top candidate to say that she would pursue significant tax changes as governor and has argued that attracting non-energy jobs to Wyoming could backfire by increasing the burden on state infrastructure without significantly increasing the tax base.
“We can diversify the economy until the cows come home,” she said during the debate. “But we really need to bite the bullet and have an honest discussion about how we build a tax structure that matches the economy of the future.”
The GOP candidates’ rhetoric on taxes largely mirrors the position of a majority of Republican lawmakers in the state, who have refused to budget on almost any tax increase in recent years. However, the state’s more moderate Republican leaders, including Mead, have acknowledged that while it would not be their immediate preference tax reform might be necessary in the near future.
Throne’s GOP opponents have largely dodged the question of how diversifying the economy will help fund public services under the current tax system, in which there is no personal or corporate income tax. Dahlin has said that implementing new taxes in advance of a changing economy would be counterproductive, while Galeotos has said it would be unfair to raise taxes without first cutting all wasteful government spending.
But they have pointed to economic growth, both within the energy industry and in other fields, as a way out of the funding crisis.
Hageman has identified government regulations at both the state and federal level as roadblocks to economic success for the state’s energy industry and argued that removing rules could help spur growth even amidst larger market forces working against coal and other natural resources in the state.
While the governor does not have any direct authority over federal regulations, she believes that by teaming up with other governors and working with the Trump administration, Wyoming could move the needle on regulations that she believes are holding back industry in the state.
“At the end of my four-year term I plan to see some serious regulatory reform,” she said.
(Throne has also mentioned reducing state regulations on energy development as one of her priorities.)
Galeotos has put attracting or training a skilled workforce as his top priority and described maintaining a strong and modern education system as crucial to achieving that.
Like Friess, Galeotos has also called for boosting tourism revenue through improved marketing.
“We need to step on the accelerator pedal there,” he said. “The more visitors we draw, the more revenue we produce.”
Gordon said he wants to improve infrastructure across the state in order to build what he believes is a more sustainable economic future for the state than comes from one-off company recruitment.
“I am not a fan of saying we’re going to plop here this thing,” he said. “I am a fan of saying, “How do we level up on each of these communities with their distinctive personalities?’”
He said that can be done partially through offering loans to local governments and using public-private partnerships to build out telecommunication networks and other projects in rural Wyoming.
Brimmer said that the lack of detailed policy positions by many of the candidates and their overlapping messaging on economics is largely to be expected — regardless of how they might differ in office once elected — because of the short campaign season. While Hageman, Throne and some other candidates began running in 2017, the race didn’t kick into high gear until after the legislative session concluded in March.
“It’s such a constrained period of time,” Brimmer said. “When you’re running a four-month race for a four-year position there’s a very pocketbook driven ‘no-taxes, more jobs,’ (message).”
Much of what Wyoming’s next governor will be able to do is dependent on the Legislature, where lawmakers often have different priorities or positions than the executive branch. For example, while Throne has said she strongly supports expanding Medicaid in the state and Galeotos has said he is open to doing so, the Legislature has repeatedly rejected such legislation.
Lawmakers have also refused to budge on any meaningful tax increases, even ones with broad support among top Republicans, such as a so-called “tourism tax” meant to draw revenue from out-of-state visitors.
But Bri Jones, former director of the Equality State Policy Center, said governors can find success working with lawmakers if they clearly outline their priorities from the start and build alliances among different groups of legislators.
“The first year is going to be really important,” said Jones, who managed Throne’s campaign in the fall. “Despite the fact there is a big majority in the Legislature in the Republican Party — that doesn’t mean there’s consensus... I truly believe a strong governor can get a lot things done.”