Wyoming Governor Candidates Spar Over Economic Diversification
The perennial, generational and seemingly intractable issue of economic diversification in Wyoming dominated a forum with the Republican, Democratic and Constitution Party candidates on Wednesday.
Those are some mighty big words for a mighty big problem.
The forum (not a debate) at the Hanger in Bar Nunn, was hosted by the Casper Area Chamber of Commerce and primarily sponsored by Enbridge, centered on business issues with basic questions about the candidates' number one priority, health insurance, labor market tightness, and diversifying revenue sources.
Republican Mark Gordon of Buffalo, Democrat Mary Throne of Cheyenne, and Constitution Party candidate Rex Rammell of Rock Springs agreed the pernicious diversity problem persists, that the state needs to keep a grip on its budget, that entrepreneurs and local governments have fostered sound business climates, and health insurance and health care affect business costs. (Libertarian candidate Laurence Struempf of Laramie did not attend.)
"We have to take immediate steps as a state to get out of this boom and bust cycle, to stabilize our revenues," Throne said. "That cycle has plagued us for our entire history."
Throne, an energy attorney, supports the coal, oil and gas industries, but the state can't expect them to pay for everything, she said. "It's not fair to them, and it's not sustainable."
Fixing it is another matter.
Despite her appreciation for the energy industries, the prices of commodities are out of their control, Throne said, and advocated a wholesale reworking of the budget process and finding other revenue sources by taxing the leisure services and tourism industries.
Gordon, the state Treasurer, wants to see a continued effort to invest the state funds and the interest income from them in the past year saved each Wyoming resident $1,500, he said.
Rammell, on the other hand, opposes the state's investment policies in the stock markets and would like to see Wyoming set up a state bank similar to North Dakota's, he said, adding that would require changing laws and the state constitution.
Rammell derided any attempt to raise taxes, saying Wyoming has the most government employees per capita than any other state. He wants to see the state take over federal lands and use their mineral wealth instead of sending it to Washington, D.C., he said.
He added that if either Gordon or Throne win, Wyoming will see its taxes go up.
That comment brought an immediate rebuke from the forum's moderator, K2 Television reporter and anchor Sloan Dickey, who at the outset said criticisms of other candidates was out of bounds.
The candidates' differed the most from each other on dealing with health insurance and health care.
Throne said the Legislature has repeatedly refused to participate in expanding Medicaid -- about $577 million in federal money, some from Wyoming taxpayers, foregone by the state -- to cover about 20,000 residents who cannot obtain health insurance. When those without insurance seek care at local hospitals and clinics, their uncompensated care jacks up the costs for everybody else including businesses, she said.
Rammell said expanding Medicaid will make the health insurance problem worse. "The more the federal government subsidizes programs like Medicaid, (health care) for the poor, the more poor we will have. It's just a fact, if you want more of something you subsidize it; if you want less of something you tax it."
Gordon, however, said the Legislature has rejected Medicaid expansion because it is a short-term solution. Instead, changes to the Affordable Care Act in the past year have created more options for people.
Regarding education, Throne said the state has a constitutional obligation to fund education for every child. However, the Senate passed a resolution to say that education was not a fundamental right, she said. "If we want to attract business, education is the number one driver."
Rammell said more money for education is not a solution, saying that achievement scores have dropped despite the state's support. Utah, he said, spends the least amount of money per student and has much better results.
Gordon said paying for education needs to be resolved on the local school district level, and that education needs more efficiencies such as centralized purchasing and holding school officials accountable, and make more opportunities for vocational education.