Editorial board: Scope of land deal demands caution, transparency
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Editorial board: Scope of land deal demands caution, transparency

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State of the State

Gov. Mark Gordon gives his State of the State address before a joint session of the Wyoming Legislature on Feb. 10 at the Wyoming Capitol in Cheyenne. 

We’ve known for some time that Wyoming must make changes if it wants to continue to provide the services that residents here have come to expect. Revenue from taxes on energy companies has long funded government services, and will continue to into the future. But last decade’s bust demonstrated that we should be thinking about new ways to generate the revenue that’s needed for our schools, our first responders and our communities.

Last month, Gov. Mark Gordon and legislative leaders made a surprising announcement: They are investigating a possible land deal that, according to some, rivals the sale of Alaska. The state of Wyoming could purchase 1 million acres of land and another 4 million acres of mineral rights in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado with the aim of creating a stable source of revenue for the state.

The land is now owned by an energy company, Occidental, that appears to be considering the sale as a way to raise cash. The land is known as a reliable source of trona and has the potential to produce revenue from oil and gas. Plus, there is the recreational value of the surface land for outdoor activities.

The scope of the deal would make any reasonable person understandably nervous. After all, we’re talking about 5 million acres that, according to some figures that have been tossed about, could be worth in excess of a billion dollars. Then there is the time crunch. If the state doesn’t move relatively quickly, we have been told, other buyers could swoop in. One must wonder who, if any, those other buyers might be. And finally, there is the unprecedented nature of the deal. The state would be responsible for a huge swath of land – including property that extends beyond its borders. How may state employees will we need to manage all aspects of this land profitably – 10, 50, 100 or more? That is certainly a consideration.

For years, our editorial board has called for Wyoming leaders to think differently. Doing nothing is not an option. And as we’ve said many times, there is no reasonable way to cut our way out of this situation without damaging our state for generations.

So Gordon and legislative leaders deserve praise for creative thinking and a unique potential solution to Wyoming’s revenue problems. But we don’t know yet whether the deal will be a good one.

For one thing, there has been talk of spending heavily from the state’s so-called rainy day funds to finance the deal. But spending a big chunk of that money raises an uncomfortable question: What if it rains and we need it? Or worse, what if the deal isn’t as profitable as our leaders might hope? Right now, those rainy day funds can help to supplement revenue during down times. If it’s not available, will lawmakers have no choice but to make serious cuts to services like education?

That doesn’t mean leadership should give up on the purchase. But it does suggest they should proceed cautiously and thoughtfully.

It also means that lawmakers must be as transparent as they can as they proceed. Yes, negotiations require a certain amount of secrecy. But to the extent possible, our leaders must keep the public informed. With so much at stake, the public deserves to be part of the conversation.

Lastly, if this deal moves forward, we wonder if bonding might make sense as an alternative to draining rainy day funds. We suspect many citizens might be interested in an opportunity to directly invest in the state’s future.

A deal like this could improve Wyoming’s fortunes for generations. It could also set us back that long. That’s why prudence and transparency should rule the day as our leaders investigate what could be a history-altering venture.

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