Wyoming is blessed with natural resources. Whether oil, uranium, coal or natural gas, Wyoming always has had in abundance what the rest of the nation needed. Today, with declining demand for energy and lower energy prices, Wyoming seems to be running out of traditional options. For the state to thrive, Wyoming must create a new economic base. Do we the people of Wyoming have the imagination and the will to do so?
Our efforts to date have yet to produce results. Some of us can remember the Wyoming Futures Project in the late 1980s: a candid review of the realities of Wyoming’s economy with suggested alternatives to break the boom-and-bust cycle. The project was the brainchild of Raymond Plank, brilliant visionary, risk taker, oil and gas tycoon and a relatively new resident of Ucross, Wyoming. By raising broad structural issues well documented by researchers from Stanford University, the project did not sit well with influential Wyoming people and was quietly set aside.
A decade later, as mineral revenues were declining, the legislature commissioned Tax Reform 2000, to study and recommend changes in the tax structure to ensure stable funding of state services. The commission consisted of six legislators and five business leaders. Assisted by a full-time staff, it worked for 18 months. By a lopsided majority, the commission’s number one recommendation was for modest corporate and personal income taxes. The state revenue department estimated that would bring in $150 million annually; almost enough to cover the then-state revenue shortfall. But then came the gas boom; the commission’s recommendations were set aside.
During legislative hearings in 2018, as mineral revenues continued their decline, legislators of all political stripes openly acknowledged the necessity of an income tax. By then the revenue estimate had been adjusted to $300 million. One legislator publicly proposed the new levy; others remained silent or openly favored the status quo, letting industry pay our bills. At this very moment, some legislators are taking another look at Tax Reform 2000. If the past teaches us anything, it is that an economy based primarily on the export of nonrenewable resources is unstable, unsecure and unhealthy.
For us older residents, we would like the world to just pass us by, and for everything to remain the same. But our younger residents know that in this new, interconnected post-industrial world, the status quo is no longer an option. And yet, past performance would suggest that legislators during their next special session will vote to lower more taxes on extracted minerals. Corporate and personal income taxes likely won’t be levied; but perhaps sales tax on food will be, on the grounds that it would not be counted as a new tax but as the re-imposition of an old one. Such would be the state’s response to the current health and economic crisis. But it doesn’t have to be.
Today Wyoming ranks 46th among the 50 states in economic vitality, according to the nonpartisan Milken Institute (http://statetechandscience.org/state-ranking.html.) Economists tell us that the true source of prosperity lies not in extracting wealth but in creating wealth, and that the most important source of wealth creation is knowledge, which comes from reading, tinkering and thinking. If there is any positive aspect of the pandemic, and now the civil turmoil, it has caused us, young and old alike, to think as never before about the value we place on human life and what gives meaning to our lives. To assist us on that path, we need civic leaders who can inspire us and draw out our best selves.
The near-term prognosis for Wyoming remains gloomy. But I am convinced that amongst us are younger people who, with a little encouragement, will use their knowledge, sense of values and just plain common sense to rise to positions of civic leadership, prerequisite to the creation of a new economic base. Meanwhile, I remain hopeful, reminding myself of Wallace Stegner’s astute observation about the American West: “When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the pattern that most characterizes and preserves it [the West], then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”
John F. Freeman lives in Laramie. He is trained in history. He can be reached at email@example.com
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