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Editorial board: Relief money spending should focus on more prosperous future

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Sunrise

The sun rises over the prairie on April 12, 2014 near the Rattlesnake Range in southwest Natrona County. 

For decades, Wyoming leaders have talked about the need to change the state’s course so that we are less economically dependent on fossil fuels. We’ve recognized that Wyoming must do more to attract and retain younger families so that we can grow and flourish as a state. But those changes aren’t free, and paying for them has always been an obstacle in our path to a more sustainable, vital future.

That’s why the more than $1 billion in federal funds the state is receiving through the American Rescue Plan Act are so critical. They represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the state’s fortunes without having to dip into our own pockets.

But simply spending the money isn’t a guarantee of success. If they’re invested properly, the federal funds represents a bridge to a more prosperous Wyoming. But if they’re squandered, it will be a missed opportunity of outsized proportions, a lottery ticket lost on the way to the bank.

Last month, Gov. Mark Gordon announced his plans for spending just under $500 million of that money. They were developed with the assistance of a “strike team” that included people from Gordon’s cabinet, local elected officials, other stakeholders and members of the public. The group identified 10 goals to consider as Gordon weighed how to best invest the funds. They included things such as attracting young adults and working families to live in Wyoming, activating new sectors of the state’s economy, expanding broadband, addressing food insecurity and growing outdoor recreation.

Gordon’s plan included seven broad proposals. He suggested placing $100 million in a reserve account and earmarking it to match private or federal funds for large-scale energy projects such as carbon capture or a hydrogen hub. He proposed putting $75 million in the Wyoming Wildlife Trust Fund, investing $40 million in outdoor recreation grants, putting $30 million toward economic development efforts, using $10 million for the Cultural Trust Fund to promote arts and historic preservation and earmarking $10 million for wildlife highway cross projects.

The process is not complete. Gordon sent his suggestions to the chairmen of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee, which will consider the matter. The public will also get a chance to offer feedback. As that work plays out, the critical questions that should be asked repeatedly are these: What does this do to change the future of Wyoming? Will it make life different for us? Will it create jobs down the road?

It’s not enough to use this money to solve immediate problems. We need to assess each idea for the changes it would or wouldn’t produce five or 10 years from now. If it doesn’t move that needle, the idea should be discarded or seriously revised.

It’s important that these proposals come with measurable outcomes. Investing money in making our state a more desirable place to live is a laudable goal. So is expanding certain sectors of our economy such as outdoor recreation and technology. But if there aren’t ways to measure whether that investment is paying off, we risk squandering millions of dollars. The Joint Appropriations Committee should consider not only how to measure the success of the investment, but also how to include sunset clauses if the metrics aren’t reached. Let’s make sure we don’t spend good money after bad.

Another potential pitfall: adding staff or programs that will eventually require the state’s general fund to support. Wyomingites are rightfully skeptical of government bloat, and the last thing we want is for this exercise to end with a need for more state spending down the road. And so the focus should be on reducing the pressure for future general fund allocations.

A decade from now Wyoming could find itself in a much better place than where we stand today. We could finally transition to a more stable, sustainable economy. We could be retaining more of our young people. Or we could find ourselves with many of the same problems we have now, but with fewer resources to address them. The decisions we make with this unexpected federal windfall will go a long way toward deciding which future we get.

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