Lawmakers Have Mixed Thoughts About Economic Development Efforts

Mar 23, 2018

Senator Cale Case speaks during the recent legislative session.
Credit Bob Beck

The Wyoming Legislature spent roughly $40 million on a variety of economic development initiatives aimed at creating jobs and diversifying the economy. Some left the session very excited about what they did while others were anxious.

Wyoming has dipped its toe into the water of economic development in the past, but while there are successes, there have also been millions of dollars spent that didn’t pan out. Just review the state’s history of spending on alternative uses for coal as a prime example. So, the legislature’s support of the latest effort to diversify the economy known as ENDOW, is a little surprising, especially at a time when the state is worried about its revenue. 

Cheyenne Representative Dan Zwonitzer has served 14 years in the House. He says diversifying the economy is a good idea. 

“You know this session we did take a huge leap of faith forward on multiple initiatives, up to $45 million out of our legislative stabilization account to try to put forth some initiatives that will pay off for us in the future. So, there’s some optimism.”

Worland Representative Michael Greear isn’t optimistic, he’s frustrated with all the unknowns.

“You know the state’s at this crossroads, we’re trying to figure out who we’re going to be going forward for the next 20 years. So we are talking about we don’t want to rely on oil and gas, but how do we do economic development? We’re not quite sure how to do it but we’ve got some good ideas.”

Or at least they might seem like good ideas. One idea sets aside $15 million to allow Wyoming to partner with air service companies, another spends money to enhance high-speed broadband in the state, and the Kickstart program provides seed money for entrepreneurs to create businesses in the state. Greear is chairman of the House Minerals, Business, and Economic Development Committee and he was far from being a rubber stamp.

“The skeptic in me is saying that I don’t think some of these are gonna work. I didn’t support the air enhancements bill, the Kickstart program is another one I didn’t support and not because we don’t need to stimulate from the ground up, but I have concerns about giving grants to individuals under our current constitutional structure.”

Afton Senator Dan Dockstader is a member of the Appropriations Committee and he also wonders about spending on ideas when money is tight.

“Some of it I had caution with because to me I couldn’t see a solid return on it.”

Dockstader was a fan of getting broadband to rural areas, such as his home base the Star Valley area. He even developed a plan…but then something happened.

“Literally while we were talking about it and I was home, over the internet comes a news release that one of the major companies spent $5 million to take that exact route up. So I’m asking, why should we take state money there when the private sector is investing $5 million in the very route I was looking at.”

He thinks better communication with the private sector should be explored instead of spending state dollars. 

And it’s not just Republicans. House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly voted for the many of the initiatives, but she’s not sure she loves where ENDOW is heading. 

“In particular about the mix of jobs, we are courting honestly, if ENDOW goes down the road it is moving. I want to see jobs that both men and women will be employed in. They are going far too much towards those sectors that employ predominately men.“

Connolly is also worried that while they are spending money on economic development, other programs may suffer. 

Others were very supportive of the legislation that passed, including bills that could make Wyoming a player when it comes to Blockchain technology. But they add that Wyoming will not be truly free from relying on the energy sector unless it changes the way it taxes other businesses. Cody Senator Hank Coe is excited about a business in his community, but he agrees that the state may not be getting the revenue it could be getting.

“Cody Labs is on its way to employing 300-350 people, that’s the kind of stuff we need, but still at commercial assessed valuation at eleven and a half percent of market…it’s still going to take so much of that to pick up the slack that minerals used to carry. “

So making sure all businesses contribute equally to the tax base, maybe next conversation.