By Bob Geha, Cowboy State Daily
Approval of measures designed to let the state buy a 1 million-acre strip of land in southern Wyoming would not mean the state would jump into the deal immediately, according to a state official.
Randall Luthi, a former legislator who is now the chief energy advisor to Gov. Mark Gordon, said the state would carefully study the proposed purchase from Occidental Petroleum and report back to the Legislature before proceeding with the sale authorized by House Bill 249 and Senate File 138.
But a former candidate for Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat said not enough is known about any proposed deal to give the state the authority to make the purchase.
“It could be great for the state … or it could be another Teapot Dome,” said Rod Miller, who ran for the House in 2018. “We just don’t know yet what the nature of this transaction is. And yet it’s being fast-tracked through the Legislature with very little transparency. It’s about as transparent as a lump of Powder River coal.”
Legislative leaders joined Gordon in the second week of the Legislature’s budget session in supporting the two bills, which would both authorize the state to begin an examination of the deal and, if favorable, enter into negotiations for the purchase.
Luthi agreed that little information is available yet on the deal, but said more information would be available as the process goes on.
“Those early conversations were like two teenagers at the prom: Is there interest? Do I approach this?” Luthi said. “Occidental wasn’t ready to put forward the value, the asking price. All that has yet to be determined. All that we know right now is the extent of the asset. Now comes the due diligence.”
Items to be studied would include the price, the value of minerals beneath the ground and how the state would manage the lands, Luthi said, adding that the bills actually just give the SLIB the authority to look into the deal.
But Miller, who served on the staff of former Gov. Ed Herschler, said the Legislature should first require the completion of those studies before looking at authorizing the purchase of the land.
“If you look at both the … bills, those bills are not directed toward investigating this deal, doing our due diligence, finding answers to some answers to these questions,” he said. “Those bills authorize the raiding of the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund and our ‘rainy day’ savings account to actually purchase this property.”
The bills pending before the Legislature take differing approaches to financing the purchase. The House bill, which was approved in its third and final reading on the House floor Friday, would call for the state to use money from various savings accounts, including the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund. The Senate bill, which won final Senate approval Thursday, would allow the state to issue revenue bonds to finance the purchase.
“You’ve got a philosophical difference: Do you take it out of savings or do you go into debt?” Luthi said. “That’s something we’re watching.”
But Miller argued the questions about the purchase should be answered even before identifying funding sources and then the answers should be shared with state residents.
“Let’s go ahead and authorize and appropriate an amount of money to do our due diligence to find out answers to some of those questions,” he said. “Then take those answers out on the street, have public hearings around Wyoming … to inform the voters of the potential upside and downside of this deal.”